AT A BEDSIDE ceremony in Texas, the Army chief of staff awarded the Purple Heart medal to hospitalized Pfc. Grant Gipe, a casualty in Operation Just Cause in Panama last December.

Paratrooper Gipe was not wounded as he bravely jumped into a night sky crisscrossed with enemy shot and shell. He was not hit while storming an objective. Nor was he felled by a bullet or ripped open by a bayonet in hand-to-hand combat with a Panamanian defender.

Rather, Pfc. Gipe was knocked out of the fight by the blistering sun on the Rio Hato drop zone. The good medics tagged him as a "heat stroke" casualty and med-evaced the 82d Airborne Division trooper to Brooke Army Hospital in San Antonio, where he was awarded the Purple Heart for "heat exhaustion" by Gen. Carl Vuono.

Soldiers had trouble with that "old devil sun" for thousands of years before Kipling's "Gunga Din" became a barracks refrain. Countless warriors and many a victory have been lost to heat exhaustion as soldiers bellied up from too much sun, an empty canteen and slack discipline. But in days past, no one got a medal for heat exhaustion, and some heat-struck casualties were even shot by angry commanders who felt they had failed their duty.

To award the Purple Heart medal for heat exhaustion is an insult to every living and dead Purple Heart holder. In conflicts past, a soldier had to bleed to get it. Its wearer had had a bullet, fragment or missile rip through his tender body dispatched by an enemy who wanted him permanently out of the way.

American warriors considered it and the Medal of Honor the nation's last respected and still sacred military decorations, the only medals that had not been exploited by the glory hunters or diminished by the bureaucrats. Now the Purple Heart too has been corrupted: It has been awarded for a reason other than wounds received as a result of enemy action.

My quarrel is not with Pfc. Gipe, who made a dangerous low-level combat jump into the darkness and later valiantly assisted two other soldiers to the aid station. It's with the bureaucrats in uniform who, since the war in Vietnam, have been responsible for the debasement of a once-proud and meaningful Army awards and decoration system. The charade has left our soldiers' chests so bedecked with fruit salad that the practice is lampooned by professional soldiers around the globe. With Gen. Vuono's action, the Army's long battered, bruised and grossly inflated awards system has sunk to a new low. This took some doing. In Vietnam, literally millions of awards were mechanically churned out. Line colonels and generals routinely got award packages for simply doing their job -- normally a Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross or Bronze Star. A 1st Cavalry Division general was awarded a Silver Star while on R & R. Gen. Alexander Haig won a Distinguished Flying Cross by identifying a Viet Cong unit while flying in his helicopter. Grenada was just as bad: 7,000 American invaders faced a few hundred militia men in a few days of sputtering combat -- and almost 10,000 awards were issued!

Yet despite these disgraceful examples, the Purple Heart medal stood proud. It was a direct descendent of America's oldest military decoration, the Badge for Military Merit, established by George Washington in 1782. It remained unblemished and untainted by inflation, corruption or manipulation because the rule was that blood had to flow, and combat medics -- one of the noblest and bravest bands of warriors -- had to sign off on these awards. They could not be bought or compromised.

Until Pfc. Gipe got his medal, the Purple Heart was the ultimate badge of courage and honor, a badge worn proudly by 731,000 living Americans -- many of whom gathered recently at the annual meeting of the Military Order of the Purple Heart meeting in Novi, Mich. The medal also served to identify the fakers. A chest full of medals without the Purple Heart gave cause to wonder if the hero who looked like a cross between a Russian general and a Christmas tree had ever been on or near a killing field or was simply a supply ace sporting his having-been-there trophies.

Now the sun in Panama and a sham in Texas have changed all that. Not only did Pfc. Gipe become a casualty of the invasion of Panama, but so did the U.S. Army's award program.

David Hackworth is a retired Army colonel who won eihgt Purple Hearts in Korea and Vietnam.