Retired Army Lt. Col. Ralph Waara paused each time he heard about another wounded soldier or Marine in Iraq.
Waara knew each one would soon share an honor linking them with 1.5 million other U.S. service personnel — the Purple Heart medal. Some of those returning home with the U.S. military’s oldest medal will be Arizonans, living and dead.
The Purple Heart is among America’s best-known symbols of military courage and sacrifice. But Waara wants Arizona to take a special step to call attention to its meaning.
The Sun Lakes resident is leading the campaign to designate Interstate 40 across northern Arizona as the Purple Heart Trail. After six years of work, the Legislature appears ready to sign on off on the plan with HJR2001. The state designation would be part of a greater effort to stretch the trail across the nation.
The timing is nearly perfect for the 75-year-old Waara, who earned two Purple Hearts in 1971 with the tank-heavy 3 rd Infantry Division in Vietnam.
"We know we’ll have a lot of new ones coming home from Iraq, and our hope is to have this in place in time to welcome them and recognize their sacrifices," Waara said.
The tradition of the Purple Heart reaches back to the Revolutionary War, when George Washington designed the medal to honor gallantry during the darkest days of fighting. The medal fell out of use after the war and was largely forgotten.
Then U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Douglas MacArthur revived the Purple Heart on Feb. 22, 1932, by adding Washington’s profile in the center and declaring that it would honor military servicemen killed or wounded in combat going back to World War I.
The United States has about 500,000 living medal recipients, and more than 10,000 reside in Arizona, said Waara, a member of the Arizona Veterans Service Commission.
Arizona would join California and Utah as the first states along I-40 to establish the Purple Heart Trail. Waara’s colleagues in the Military Order of the Purple Heart are lobbying 10 other states to create a continuous trail stretching east to North Carolina.
But that’s only the first phase in the vision of former longtime Tucson resident George McGallagher, who also has two Purple Hearts. McGallagher wants every state and Puerto Rico to create a web of Purple Heart Trails through state capitals and major cities. All paths would lead eventually to Mount Vernon, Va., Washington’s resting place.
"We hoped that Purple Hearts would fade away. But tragically, wars continue, and people are killed and wounded," McGallagher said by telephone from his home in Reston, Va. "(The trail) is a symbolic thing to inculcate the Purple Heart . . . the great heritage we have, so the communities and the citizens of today and tomorrow will be able to have a warm and fuzzy feeling for those in the past who gave their lives to their country," McGallagher said.
The campaign to develop the Purple Heart Trail has attracted help beyond those who have earned the medal.
The Rev. Glenn Smith, a Catholic priest who retired to Sun Lakes, never left the United States as a pilot in the Army Air Corps during World War II. But his brother, another pilot, was shot down and killed early in that war.
Smith’s family tree has deep roots in American military history and includes ancestor Daniel Bissell, one of three Revolutionary War soldiers awarded the original Purple Heart by Washington.
Creating the Purple Heart Trail would elevate a personal honor to a tradition for all Arizonans to share, Smith said.
"When people are driving down the highway, the trail will be a memorial to remind everyone of the sacrifice of those who bought our freedom with their lives," Smith said.
For more information about the Military Order of the Purple Heart, visit
For more information about HJR2001, which would designate a portion of Interstate 40 as the Purple Heart Trail, visit