Purple Heart recipients and their families have a new honor, visible to thousands of motorists that travel daily on Routes 1 and 4 in southern Rhode Island.
The state highways are officially designated as the Rhode Island Purple Heart Trail, and new green highway signs marking the designation were recently installed along the roadside.
Local veterans joined area lawmakers to help make the Purple Heart Trail designation a reality. Joe “Tiger” Patrick, the commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 916 in South Kingstown, worked with state Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee and Rep. Kathleen Fogarty as well as state Sen. V. Susan Sosnowski on the project.
“This really means a lot to my guys, meaning our veterans, who worked together on this and collaborated,” Patrick said. “I haven’t seen a couple of them this happy since I’ve known them — to be able to be the founding Purple Heart veterans who made this happen for our state and for Purple Heart veterans who will come here with their families.”
In addition to the new name, each green rectangular sign also has a depiction of the Purple Heart medal, which is given to U.S. Armed Forces members killed or wounded in action with enemy forces.
“It’s wonderful to see the Rhode Island Purple Heart Trail finally come together so that we may honor our veterans who bravely served in battle and received the Purple Heart Medal,” McEntee, sponsor of the House bill, said.
On April 1, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation put up six new signs along the trail, which begins with Route 4 in Warwick, merges into Route 1 in North Kingstown and continues to Westerly.
Local legislators introduced bills early in 2020 to begin the process.
At about the same time, East Greenwich became the sixth and final town along the routes to declare itself a Purple Heart Town, joining Westerly, Charlestown, Narragansett, and North and South Kingstown.
Passage of the bill didn’t happen until June, and Gov. Gina Raimondo signed it on June 24.
Legislative action earlier this year authorized the DOT to install the signs before Aug. 7, which is National Purple Heart Day.
Fogarty, chairwoman of the House Committee on Special Legislation, said that last year the Federal Highway Administration had initially rejected a different proposed purple and white sign that showed a Purple Heart circled by 13 gold stars. Patrick said the 13 stars were chosen by the veterans because of Rhode Island’s status as one of the country’s founding 13 colonies.
But the federal agency said the sign had to match similar brown highway signs depicting national points of interest, such as parks and monuments, in other parts of the country.
A DOT official told lawmakers in February that, in essence, Rhode Island’s hands were tied: Because the state receives federal highway funds, it has to abide by certain standards for signage, he said.
This didn’t thrill the veterans and lawmakers, who preferred the original sign but said they’d accept a brown version if there was no room to deviate.
Patrick also noted other states, such as California and Oklahoma, tailored the look of signs along their own Purple Heart Trails.
“Oklahoma has a Native American sign because of the Native Americans who live there,” he said.
After some later discussion between Patrick and the DOT, however, Rhode Island’s signs ended up green, which Fogarty said she prefers over brown signs.
“They just stand out more profoundly,” she said. She also said it was important that the Purple Heart was still able to be displayed on the signs.
Dora Vasquez-Hellner a 23-year Army veteran, is senior vice commander of the VFW Department of Rhode Island. She spoke in favor of the signs and the Purple Heart Trail designation.
“On Aug. 7, 2019, Gov. Raimondo declared Rhode Island a Purple Heart State, joining 44 other states and the Island of Guam,” she said.
She credited Patrick’s efforts to get the Purple Heart Trail established in the Ocean State. Patrick also serves as junior vice commander of the VFW Department of Rhode Island.
“Everyone in the veteran community has been super excited following this endeavor to the final product of the Purple Heart Trail,” she said.
Even South Kingstown school children joined the effort to raise awareness about the Purple Heart Trail, creating special “Purple Heart Rocks” to give to lawmakers, Fogarty said.
“It’s a very very important thing, to honor our Purple Heart veterans,” she said.