Georgian among first to be awarded Purple Heart for concussion

Monroe Seigle doesn’t remember the moment of impact. It was April 16, 2006. Having just completed a mission, his U.S. Marine unit was convoying back to Hadifah, a town in northern Iraq, when the Humvee hit a roadside bomb.

“It was a huge explosion and the gunner’s face was shredded by shrapnel,” said Seigle, 32, a native of Marietta and a senior at Kennesaw State University. “I was stunned and I remember being in a ditch with debris raining down on me. I remember being in a daze.”

Seigle was rushed to a medical unit, where he was diagnosed with a concussion. He was out of the hospital and back in action in two days. The gunner got a Purple Heart, but because Seigle wasn't knocked unconscious and didn't have an open wound, he didn't get a medal.

“Someone mentioned that I should have gotten one, but I didn’t even think about getting a Purple Heart,” Seigle said. “I was just ready to go back out there.”

But Wednesday, the third anniversary of his discharge from the Marines, Seigle was awarded his Purple Heart in a quiet ceremony at Dobbins Air Force Base.

Seigle, according to state officials, is the first Georgian to retroactively receive a Purple Heart after the Department of Defense’s 2011 decision to change the criteria to specifically include concussions and mild traumatic brain injuries.

The move, which means that possibly thousands of Purple Heart medals will now go to troops like Seigle, recognizes the changing nature of war and increased science about concussions.

“A lot of veterans who are probably and possibly eligible for a Purple Heart don’t know the criteria has changed,” said Douglas J. Middleton, senior vice commander of the Georgia Military Order of the Purple Heart. “Hopefully, now others might say, that sounds like my story.”

The criteria for the Purple Heart award states that an injury must have been caused by enemy action or in action against the enemy, and require medical treatment.

But it was often difficult to determine when a mild traumatic brain injury or a concussive injury that did not result in a loss of consciousness or blood was serious enough.

“Before, it was pretty much, you had to bleed to get a Purple Heart,” said Middleton, an Army veteran who suffered a leg injury in Vietnam.

The Army began reviewing how Purple Hearts were awarded for battlefield concussions in 2010 after an investigative series by NPR and ProPublica revealed how hard it was for soldiers to get medals after the injury.

“We are going to have traditionalists, who say otherwise, but those guys are putting themselves at risk just like the rest of us did,” said Dave Raper, a member of Chapter 576 of the Military Order of the Purple Heart in Alpharetta.

Raper has two Purple Hearts from his service as a Marine in Vietnam -- one for an AK-47 shot to the left arm and the other from a grenade attack that injured his right arm.

“The first thought is that [a concussion injury] it is not real. But let’s examine what happens when that Humvee gets hit and those soldiers are flying around in there,” Raper said. "This is serious.”

Concussions have been a major issue recently, as hundreds of retired NFL players sued the league, claiming their memory loss, chronic headaches and other disorders stem from mismanaged concussions during their playing careers.

According to a U.S. Army spokeswoman, since 9/11 there have been 28,910 Purple Hearts awarded for service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But experts estimate that more than 80,000 members of all the armed forces have suffered concussions since 2001 in Iraq and Afghanistan, mostly from roadside bombs.

“Warfare has changed,” Middleton said. “This makes sense, because the wounds manifest themselves differently. In World War I, they were getting gassed. Things are much more sophisticated now.”

Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., co-chairman of the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force, estimates that since Sept. 11, 2001, more than 29,000 Marines have been diagnosed with some form of traumatic brain injury and 20,000 of those were considered mild.

“When I heard that our soldiers were being denied the due respect, simply because they absorbed an injury with no blood, I said this can’t be. I thought I read it wrong,” said Pascrell, who lobbied the DOD for the changes. “Every soldier that puts his life on the line deserves the Purple Heart.”