Dec. 7, 2011 – 10:54 p.m.

Red Tape Over Purple Heart Spurs Lawmakers to Ponder Changes

After hearing that a soldier killed by an avowed terrorist at a Little Rock recruiting station had been denied a Purple Heart, House and Senate lawmakers not only pledged to change the rules governing the decoration, they also began — within a matter of hours — talks for doing so.

The Purple Heart is bestowed on those wounded or killed during military service, and the criteria for awarding it include injuries incurred during acts of international terrorism.

During emotional testimony before a joint hearing of the House and Senate Homeland Security committees Wednesday, Daris Long, the father of Pvt. William Long, said the military did not bestow the medal upon his son, who died in a 2009 drive-by shooting at the recruiting station. Carlos Leon Bledsoe — also known as Abdulhakim Muhammad — is accused of opening fire on Long and Pvt. Quinton Ezeagwula.

But the federal government considers the incident a criminal matter, and the Army has said it does not have enough information to make a judgment on the Purple Heart, Long said.

“He was left on the battlefield,” Long said during the hearing.

Joseph I. Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said Congress should do something about that.

“The language, as it exists now in law and executive order and regulation regarding the awarding of Purple Hearts, has got the folks at the Defense Department in a box that nobody in Congress wants them to be in,” he said. “Your son should obviously be awarded the Purple Heart posthumously.”

During the ensuing discussion of the matter, members agreed that a change should be made but did not discuss specifics. Lieberman said he would support a proposal that goes beyond the Little Rock case and the 2009 shooting at Fort Hood, Texas. The goal, he said, should be “to change the statute so that it can be clear that in circumstances of this kind, there shouldn’t be any question about the awarding of a Purple Heart.”

Lieberman, who is on the conference committee for the fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill (HR 1540), said one possible way to address the situation would be to insert language into that measure. He added that the short-notice nature of the proposal could affect its chances of adoption, but he was hopeful that Congress could move quickly.

At a meeting Wednesday, conferees discussed changes to the Purple Heart’s regulations but did not take any formal action, committee aides said.

At the joint hearing. House Homeland Security Committee ranking Democrat Bennie Thompson of Mississippi and Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., both of whom are also on the defense authorization conference committee, said they would support a change.

“I’d love to do it,” Thompson said.

The members of the joint committee are not the first to examine the Purple Heart issue. Earlier this year, Republican Rep. Tim Griffin of Arkansas filed a bill (HR 2683) that would recognize Long and Ezeagwula, who was wounded in the shooting.