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It’s legal for Donald Trump to accept a Purple Heart. How he handled it is up for debate.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump talks to retired Lt. Col. Louis Dorfman, who gave Trump a Purple Heart, during a campaign event at Briar Woods High School in Ashburn, Va., on Aug. 2. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)
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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump receiving a Purple Heart medal Tuesday from a wounded veteran is both acceptable and legal, according to military medal experts. But whether he handled it well is another matter.

Trump, speaking Tuesday at Briar Woods High School in Ashburn, Va., told a crowd that “something very nice just happened” to him — namely, that retired Army Lt. Col. Louis Dorfman gave him the Purple Heart he earned in combat. Trump drew laughs by saying he asked the veteran whether it was the “real one or a copy,” and added that Dorfman told him it was his actual medal.

“He said that’s my real Purple Heart; I have such confidence in you,” Trump recalled for the crowd. “And I said man, that’s like — that’s like big stuff. I always wanted to get the Purple Heart. This was much easier.”

Donald Trump says he ‘always wanted to get the Purple Heart’

Trump added that it was “such an honor” and invited Dorfman to join him on the stage. But Trump saying that he “always wanted” to get the Purple Heart has generated a backlash among some veterans, who said that no one seeks a Purple Heart, which is given to those who are wounded or killed in combat.

“Look, I think these comments are just — they are so selfish,” said former senator Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), who earned the Medal of Honor and the Purple Heart as a Navy SEAL in Vietnam, in an interview Tuesday night on MSNBC. “It wasn’t like he was talking about the sacrifice of this veteran who had given him his Purple Heart. Nobody wants the Purple Heart. You don’t go into a combat hoping that you get injured.”

Added retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey in the same MSNBC segment: “Look, a Purple Heart isn’t like an Emmy or Oscar, for God’s sakes. … There’s just been a series of babbles out of Mr. Trump that tells me he has no conception about the armed forces or what it means to serve. That certainly includes the notion of sacrifice.”

Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who received a Purple Heart after losing both legs in Iraq as an Army helicopter pilot, tweeted a photograph of herself in the hospital and wrote that there was “nothing easy about it.”

Some critics have questioned whether Trump should have accepted the Purple Heart when it was offered. But that is actually perfectly acceptable, said Doug Sterner, a Vietnam veteran who has testified before Congress about military award issues. Veterans often pass down their military awards as keepsakes to family or friends, and they are allowed to do virtually anything they want with their awards other than sell a Medal of Honor, he said.

“It would be improper for him to wear it, but nothing illegal was done,” Sterner said of Trump. “Nothing unprecedented was done. I respect that veteran’s right to do what he did.”

Sterner added that he doesn’t understand Dorfman’s desire to share his Purple Heart, citing the candidate’s use of draft deferments to stay out of the Vietnam War. But Sterner said it “would have been very, very rude to have dismissed” Dorfman’s offer. It would have been more appropriate, however, to have quietly received it and not drawn attention to it onstage.

“That would have been the appropriate thing to do,” Sterner said. “But when has Donald Trump done anything appropriate?”

John Bircher, a spokesman for the Military Order of the Purple Heart, shared that assessment. He cited an example in which an Iraq War veteran from Arizona gave then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) his Purple Heart after she survived a gunshot to the head in 2007, but added that he hoped than anyone who receives the award through unusual circumstances “understands its importance and meaning, and would not do anything with it that would in any way denigrate its special meaning for those who have received it.”

Dorfman could not be reached for comment Tuesday, and could not be found at an address in Montclair, Va., listed under his name. His Army records show that he served from 1976 to 2010, deploying to Afghanistan from March 2007 to June 2007 and to Iraq immediately afterward until March 2008 while assigned to the 351st Civil Affairs Battalion, of Mountain View, Calif. During his career, he served at various times as a quartermaster, a logistician and as a transmission distribution specialist, records show.

The Purple Heart came for wounds suffered Nov. 22, 2007, in Iraq, according to an entry on the National Purple Heart Hall of Valor, a museum in Upstate New York. A spokeswoman for the museum, Anita Pidala, said that they had no position on the exchange between Trump and Dorfman, but they compile their database using “voluntary enrollments which come to us from the recipients, their families or friends” and require verification.

In addition to the Purple Heart, Dorfman earned a Bronze Star with V, a medal that specifically recognizes valor in combat. The circumstances of that award were not immediately clear.

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