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Military & Veterans' Issues

A Navy Corpsman Receives A Purple Heart. He Didn't Think He Deserved It

Joseph Hardebeck, a senior Navy corpsman, is greeted by his daughters Zoey, 9, and Adalie, 7, after receiving the Purple Heart at an award ceremony at Southern California's Camp Pendleton on Thursday.
Joseph Hardebeck, a senior Navy corpsman, is greeted by his daughters Zoey, 9, and Adalie, 7, after receiving the Purple Heart at an award ceremony at Southern California's Camp Pendleton on Thursday.

More than 11 years after a bullet grazed by his head in Afghanistan, destroying his eardrum and singeing the side of his face, Joe Hardebeck has been awarded the Purple Heart.

But for a long time, the 33-year-old senior Navy corpsman's pride stood in the way. He hadn't really been shot or lost a limb. Hardebeck didn't believe he had been wounded badly enough to deserve the military's oldest award.

Hardebeck is currently serving with the 1st Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, an artillery unit at Camp Pendleton in Southern California. But his injuries for which he is being recognized took place in the spring of 2010 in Marjah, Afghanistan — one of the most dangerous cities in the country at the time.

The Marines had been ambushed three or four times that day. Taliban fighters attacked with small arms fire from several hundred yards away, the Marines responded with their own barrage of bullets. Eventually the fighting would come to a stop, only to start up again a short while later after the Marines had become comfortable — but not complacent — with the quiet.

Lt. Col Matthew Ritchie pins a Purple Heart onto Hardebeck during the award ceremony. Originally created by George Washington in 1782 as the Badge of Military Merit, the Purple Heart is presented to service members who are killed or wounded in combat.
/ Sandy Huffaker for NPR
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Lt. Col Matthew Ritchie pins a Purple Heart onto Hardebeck during the award ceremony. Originally created by George Washington in 1782 as the Badge of Military Merit, the Purple Heart is presented to service members who are killed or wounded in combat.

It was Feb. 21, 2010, and the Taliban were battling to retain control of the city of Marjah, their last stronghold in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. They would not go quietly.

Hardebeck, then a 22-year-old Navy hospital corpsman assigned to the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, was on his second combat deployment. And while his role, traditionally, was to save lives — not to take them — he was deemed a combatant until the situation dictated, seamlessly transitioning from rifleman to lifesaver in a heartbeat.

Amid the quiet, Hardebeck leaned against a wall, scanning the horizon for indicators of the next attack. The Marines had taken cover behind a small building, bounding from one structure to the next as they advanced through rural farmland.

Next came a deafening crack — a miniature explosion. A bullet bound for his head had missed, striking the wall mere inches away from his face. Hardebeck recoiled behind the wall after the impact peppered him with dirt and debris.

Hardebeck stands with his daughter Adalie and his Purple Heart after the award ceremony. There have been more than 1.8 million Purple Heart recipients since its inception, but Hardebeck believes the number for those who qualify for the award is higher.
/ Sandy Huffaker for NPR
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Hardebeck stands with his daughter Adalie and his Purple Heart after the award ceremony. There have been more than 1.8 million Purple Heart recipients since its inception, but Hardebeck believes the number for those who qualify for the award is higher.

"I think they're shooting at me," he told the Marines around him. Everyone laughed, as they always did, before they continued about their business, running and gunning in a country from far from home.

He didn't know it at the time, but the round had passed so close and at such great speed that the pressure ruptured his ear drum. Hardebeck said it even caused a minor burn along the side of his cheek.

Shortly after, another Marine approached him and said, "You know you have blood coming out of your ear?" Simultaneously, an officer seized Hardebeck and hurried him along. A Marine across the way had been shot; they needed help.

The thought of leaving his men to seek appropriate medical attention never crossed his mind. Hardebeck was the senior corpsman for his company, responsible for the oversight of about a dozen other "docs," men who looked to him for direction.

Hardebeck shakes hands with service members after the ceremony. Hardebeck's injuries for which he is being recognized took place in 2010 in Marjah, Afghanistan — one of the most dangerous cities in the country at the time.
/ Sandy Huffaker for NPR
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Hardebeck shakes hands with service members after the ceremony. Hardebeck's injuries for which he is being recognized took place in 2010 in Marjah, Afghanistan — one of the most dangerous cities in the country at the time.

Additionally, the Marines were his family. Had something happened to them while he was gone, he later explained, he would never forgive himself. And so, he stayed.

Originally created by George Washington in 1782 as the Badge of Military Merit, the Purple Heart is presented to service members that are killed or wounded in combat. It's one award most don't want to pay their pound of flesh for.

There have been more than 1.8 million recipients since its inception, but Hardebeck believes the number for those who qualify for the the award is higher. A handful of his peers were also wounded, to some degree, while serving overseas.

But many service members, like Hardebeck, who qualify for the Purple Heart keep their afflictions to themselves.

"When something that we view as minor, whether it be a small abrasion, a cut, a perforated eardrum, something that didn't take us out of the fight, it's hard to, to accept the fact that that it still rates a Purple Heart," Hardebeck said. "And that was where my mind went with all of that. It wasn't that I didn't think I should get it per se, but I didn't think I deserved it. I wasn't hurt enough."

Hardeback received the Purple Heart 11 years after being injured in combat when a bullet grazed his face and ruptured his eardrum. For a long time, he didn't believe he had been wounded badly enough to deserve the military's oldest award.
/ Sandy Huffaker for NPR
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Hardeback received the Purple Heart 11 years after being injured in combat when a bullet grazed his face and ruptured his eardrum. For a long time, he didn't believe he had been wounded badly enough to deserve the military's oldest award.

It wasn't until years later, in 2017, that a tragedy brought Hardebeck and some of the Marines from that deployment back together. And in typical Marine fashion, the men started swapping stories over beers, reminiscing about their time in Afghanistan and the events.

Hardebeck was a 22-year-old Navy hospital corpsman assigned to the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment in Afghanistan.
/ Joseph Hardebeck
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Hardebeck was a 22-year-old Navy hospital corpsman assigned to the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment in Afghanistan.

About half the men at the table, Hardebeck recalled, had been wounded during the push for Marjah, many from shrapnel and rock following an improvised explosive device blast. And other than one hardened Marine, who had three Purple Hearts, nobody had submitted the paperwork.

When their eyes turned to him, Hardebeck promised he would at least look into how to go about filing for the award. He spent the better part of a year gathering his records and contacting his previous commanders to vouch for him.

At the end of 2017, his application was denied. But Hardebeck reapplied one year later, and with additional paperwork in his corner, his request was granted.

Hardebeck was retroactively awarded the Purple Heart at Camp Pendleton on Thursday afternoon in a ceremony that less than half an hour. His mother, Cheryl Redwine, said she got teary-eyed as she watched from the crowd. She sat with Hardebeck's two children and their mother, all of whom had flown in for the occasion.

Hardebeck walks to his Purple Heart ceremony with his daughters Adalie and Zoey. He downplayed the incident for which he received the award for several years and only applied for it at the urging of Marines from that deployment.
/ Sandy Huffaker for NPR
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Hardebeck walks to his Purple Heart ceremony with his daughters Adalie and Zoey. He downplayed the incident for which he received the award for several years and only applied for it at the urging of Marines from that deployment.

Following the ceremony, Hardebeck's fellow Marines and sailors descended upon him for hugs, handshakes and congratulations. Shortly after that, the crowd dispersed.

"It's pretty surreal for me," Hardebeck said. "Part of me is glad that I took the advice of those who are close to me to push me to get the award, but I'm also glad that chapter of my life is over and I can move on.

"It makes me think about everything I've gone through and where I've been since," he added.

While Hardebeck was receiving his award, the U.S. handed over control of Bagram Airfield, one of the largest military installations in Afghanistan. After nearly 20 years, the American military is pulling its troops out of the country.

His mind wanders into the past from time to time. The names of 11 fellow Marines who didn't make it home from Afghanistan often weigh heavy on him, some days a little heavier than others.

But Hardebeck has learned to celebrate the lives of his fallen friends, living his best life for them. This weekend, that entails fireworks with his family. They'll spend Independence day together, watching the skies light up.

Former Cpl. Dustin Jones served in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, with Bravo Company, 3rd Platoon, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, from 2009-2010.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.