Veteran's efforts honor bravery

Don Ellzey

The Purple Heart is one of the most cherished of military combat medals.

It is one of the first medals in military history that could be awarded to lower ranking, enlisted service personnel or non-commissioned officers for injuries received in combat or outstanding service.

Ponchatoula has been declared a Purple Heart City, and a special ceremony is scheduled for Friday to give special recognition to the city for this honor. The event will begin at 8 a.m. at Ponchatoula Cemetery with the raising of the flags.

Mayor Bob Zabbia says being named a Purple Heart City, and the only Purple Heart City in the state, is a great honor for the community and especially for its veterans.

The mayor thanked Bert Cusimano, adjutant of American Legion Post No. 47 of Ponchatoula, for bringing the Purple Heart designation to the attention of city officials.

“Bert applied on behalf of our city, and we are so grateful that he did,” Zabbia said.

Cusimano moved to Ponchatoula from Metairie about four years ago. He loves the city and says everything has been positive for him since he made the move.

A member of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, he approached Zabbia and the city council about submitting an application for the city to be named a Purple Heart City. They approved, and he sent the application to the national headquarters of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. It was soon approved.

Cusimano and Ron Cirese are believed to be the only residents of Ponchatoula who are members of the order.

Now, Cusimano is taking the Purple Heart issue a step further.

He is working to have Tangipahoa Parish declared a Purple Heart Parish, the first such in the state. But first, he must find at least 12 Purple Heart recipients in the parish. If he can get all parishes declared Purple Heart parishes, Louisiana would then become a Purple Heart state.

Cusimano said he worked to get the designation for Ponchatoula because he loves the city. Ponchatoula is a great place to live, he said, and he wanted to give back something for what he has received.

The Purple Heart has its origin in the Revolutionary War. Its first predecessor, the Fidelity Medallion, was created in 1780 by the Continental Congress. It was awarded to only three soldiers.

In 1782, Gen. George Washington created the Badge of Military Merit, considered to be the first U.S. military decoration.

Washington reportedly designed the first Purple Heart from a piece of purple cloth. It would be awarded to soldiers who displayed not only unusual gallantry in battle, but also “extraordinary fidelity and essential service in any way.”

It is the oldest military award still given to military members. The Purple Heart is given on behalf of the president to decorate members of the armed forces who are injured or killed by instruments of war while serving in the U.S. military.

The Purple Heart received its modern look in 1932 thanks to army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who wanted to refresh and rename the award in time for the bicentennial of Washington’s birthday. MacArthur was himself awarded the medal that same year for his actions in the Philippines during World War II.

A total 1.5 million Purple Hearts were manufactured during World War II based on the estimate of casualties from an invasion of Japan. By the end of the war, 500,000 remained. In 2000, there were still 120,000 Purple Hearts in stock.

The medals in stock allowed combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan to keep Purple Hearts on hand to award to soldiers in the field. Estimates of Purple Hearts award during conflicts are World War I, 320,518; World War II, 1,076,245; Korean War, 118,650; Vietnam War, 351,794.

John F. Kennedy is the only president to have received the Purple Heart for his service in the Pacific Theater during World War II.

Other famous people who have received the Purple Heart are actors James Arness, Charles Bronson, James Garner, Rod Serling and Audie Murphy; athletes Warren Spahn, Pat Tillman and Rocky Blier; politicians John Kerry, Colin Powell, Tammy Duckworth and John McCain; and even animals, Sergeant Studdy the dog and Sergeant Reckless the horse.

The first woman to receive the Purple Heart was Army Lt. Annie G. Fox for her heroic actions during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Fox was serving as the chief nurse at the hospital at Hickam Field, Hawaii, and remained calm during the attack on Pearl Harbor and her hospital, successfully directing hospital staff to tend to the wounded as they came in from the harbor.

Cordelia “Betty” Cook was the first woman to receive both a Purple Heart and Bronze Star. A combat nurse at a field hospital on the Italian Front in 1943, she sustained shrapnel wounds during an attack on her hospital but continued treating wounded soldiers despite her injuries.

Curry T. Haynes of White Plains, Georgia, holds the record for having received the most Purple Hearts bestowed on a single service member. He was serving in the Army in Vietnam when his unit was ambushed and he was wounded in the arm.

Following surgery in Japan, he returned to ‘Nam where his actions would later earn him nine Purple Hearts. In one assault, which involved dodging multiple grenades, he sustained several injuries, including the loss of two fingers.

He died in July 2017 of cancer.

Ponchatoula has earned its place for support of military events. During World War II, the city, and especially the school children, collected enough scrap iron to have a ship named for the city, the USS Ponchatoula, whose bell is stationed just outside the front door of city hall. Now, being designated a Purple Heart City adds to that luster.

The citizens of Ponchatoula can thank Bert Cusiamano for his work and dedication to have Ponchatoula named a Purple Heart City.

Don Ellzey gets email at

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