NBC News with Brian Williams
By Kevin Tibbles Correspondent
NBC News
updated 1/19/2005 7:41:46 PM ET 2005-01-20T00:41:46

On day three of the Iraq war, in March 2003, 26-year-old Marine 1st Lt. Dustin Ferrell was in a Humvee heading to battle when time stopped. 

“I guess you could say I had my face smashed in,” Ferrell says, “Most of the bones from my eyes down were broken.... My jaw was just shattered.”

They suspected a bomb. The driver was dead, and others were injured. Ferrell was still unable to speak when the Purple Heart was pinned on his chest.

“More than any other medal I've worn, it told me I've done my duty,” Ferrell explains.

Nearly two years later the letters came saying it wasn’t enemy fire that caused the incident, it was a traffic accident.

“An error was made,” the Department of the Navy wrote. Ferrell's Purple Heart had been “revoked.”

“The way this was handled was just absolutely despicable,” Ferrell insists.

The Purple Heart is awarded to members of the Armed Forces killed or wounded in “any action against an enemy of the United States.”

But, the guidelines also stipulate injuries that do not qualify, such as those from accidents — including vehicular — not related to or caused by enemy action.

Some argue Ferrell's group was in a combat zone and to strip away this badge of courage is an outrage.

“Now Donald Rumsfeld wants their medals back?” says Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind. “It's ridiculous, except it's mean.”

Ray Funderburk has two Purple Hearts from Vietnam. And while he agrees that Ferrell's was awarded by mistake, he doesn’t agree with the revocation.

“I think it's pretty significant to have such a wonderful award — one that's so honored and revered — awarded and then taken away. I think it's more than petty,” he says.

The Marine Corps tells NBC News that mistakes like this rarely happen. Meanwhile, federal officials say Ferrell can keep his medal but he can't wear it. And the awarding of the Purple Heart will be erased from his service record.

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