WASHINGTON (Army News Service, June 10, 2013) -- Army birthday celebrations began somberly in the nation's capital with a wreath laying at the tomb of the Continental Army's first general, Alexandria, Va.
Surrounded by several hundred visitors at the Mount Vernon estate of George and Martha Washington, Secretary of the Army John McHugh placed a wreath at the crypt of America's first president. The event marked the start of a week of festivities surrounding the Army's 238th birthday, which is officially June 14, 2013.
Following the playing of Taps, McHugh, Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond Chandler, and Ann Bookout, the 20th regent of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, gathered in the estate auditorium to present Purple Hearts to wounded Soldiers Sgt. Sean P. Karpf, Spc. Arael Lopez and Pfc. Cory A. Doane.
Bookout opened the ceremony remarking that there was no better place for the Army to open its 238th birthday than at the home of the country's first commander-in-chief.
"Not only was George Washington first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was the first military official to recognize Soldiers who served and sacrificed for what we now call the Purple Heart," she said.
Unlike European armies at the time which only awarded medals to officers, Washington was the first to acknowledge that courage and commitment were qualities which should be recognized and celebrated regardless of rank, Bookout noted.
Washington established the Badge of Military Merit, Aug. 7, 1782. That badge was the forerunner to the Purple Heart, developed later by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, and introduced Feb. 22, 1932, the 200th anniversary of Washington's birthday. The medal, which is awarded for wounds received by an enemy action, bears Washington's profile and family coat-of-arms.
This is the second year the Army has kicked off its birthday celebration at Mount Vernon. It is a tradition, the secretary said, he hopes will continue.
"Before there was a nation, and before there was any symbol of that nation, the Constitution, the national seal, a flag, there was Washington," McHugh said. "Without George Washington, there might have been no Army."
McHugh said it was Washington who first recognized that the strength of the military and the hope of early America rested with those citizens who chose to serve in uniform. He called out by name the three Soldiers who would be presented with the Purple Heart. He also acknowledged the wounded warriors in the audience.
"Sometimes history and the will of Congress can be too overpowering, too compelling even for a man with the power of conviction, the courage and vision of George Washington," McHugh said. "But some things can always be counted on, like the men and women of the United States Army. So we appreciate the opportunity to begin our birthday commemorations here at Mount Vernon, home of General Washington, as well as the beginning of the Purple Heart Trail."
The Purple Heart Trail was established in 1992, by the Military Order of the Purple Heart.
Throughout 45 states and in Guam, bridges, highways, trails and roads have been designated as part of the Purple Heart Trail. The reminders let travelers know that others have paid a high price for freedom.
For the sergeant major of the Army, the opportunity to launch Army birthday week at Mount Vernon was nothing short of a "pretty humbling experience."
"Laying a wreath at [the tomb of] one of the founding fathers, the first commander in chief, the first president of the United States, it's pretty amazing," Chandler said. "[It's] almost as good as seeing Soldiers over in Afghanistan or in Iraq or some other place, it's right up there as one of my top 10 things in being the sergeant major of the Army ."