Mr. Obama: Please Honor Our Returning Heroes

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Volumes have been written about past administrations’ decisions not to let the American people see images of the flag-draped coffins, our fallen heroes, arriving at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware—the first contact with U.S. soil since leaving foreign battlefields, including the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.

I will neither condemn nor condone the reported reasons for such a decision. Reasons that have reportedly ranged from respect and concern for the family’s grief and privacy, to alleged attempts by the Bush administration to hide the real tragedy and cost of the war from the American public, lest opposition to the war increase even more.

In an informative article today, “Fallen Soldiers, Coming Home,” the New York Times discusses the background, allegations, issues and “implications” involved with such a ban on photographing the flag-draped coffins.

The Times also reports:

Just last week, President Obama was asked at a news conference if he would allow coverage of the flag-draped coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware “so the American people can see the full human cost of war.”

Mr. Obama surprised many when he replied that he was “in the process of reviewing those policies.” But he did not tip his hand. “I don’t want to give you an answer now before I’ve evaluated that review and understand all the implications involved,” he said.

Talking about implications, The Times notes:

Moreover, no one knows what will happen in Iraq or Afghanistan, or on some other battlefield. At some point, Mr. Obama himself will be held accountable for the coffins coming home, and he may find that it is not in his interest, any more than it was in his predecessors’, for Americans to have these visual reminders of the death toll.

Mr. President, the American people understand that you may have to send more of our brave troops to Afghanistan and elsewhere, and that, tragically, some of them may return in flag-draped coffins through Dover Air Force Base.

But, if your promises about change, transparency, and leveling with the American people are sincere, you must let the American people honor its fallen heroes when they first reach American soil. This can and should be done consistent with every respect and due considerations for the hardship, grief, privacy, etc. of the surviving family members, and regardless of future political considerations.

To do otherwise, would make your administration, in this respect, not any different than previous ones.

And, Mr. Obama, while you are reviewing this policy, please also consider the following:

After nearly seven years of combat in Afghanistan and in Iraq, the previous administration saw fit to award only five Medals of Honor, our nation’s highest military award for valor, to our Iraq and Afghanistan heroes.

In contrast, there were 245 Medals of Honor recipients during the Vietnam War, and 27 Medals of Honor were awarded for the single World War II battle of Iwo Jima.

There may be some more Medals of Honor “in the pipeline,” but here is a unique opportunity for you, our new President, to recognize the magnificent acts of heroism that surely have been performed by many more than just five of our brave troops.

Mr. President, please honor our heroes, for their acts of valor and as they return home for the last time.

Photos: U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Army

Author: DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

22 Comments

  1. Agreed. This administration has to adhere to the principles that were ignored and trampled in the previous one or it's credibility will suffer accordingly. Our service people deserve this respect, and the American people have the right to expect transparency in their govt. I'm certainly willing to withhold judgement longer than the first few weeks (unlike some folks) but at some point we will see just how much this new president departs from the sins of the last. If the reality even comes close to matching the rhetoric, then we will all be well served. If it doesn't, then we'd all better forget about Democrats and Republicans, because party and ideology will be the least of our problems.

  2. Mr. Obama surprised many when he replied that he was “in the process of reviewing those policies.” But he did not tip his hand. “I don’t want to give you an answer now before I’ve evaluated that review and understand all the implications involved,” he said.

    Translation. He must clear it with Moveon.org.

  3. I must admit while I have agreed to give the president his 100 days this president is beginning to look more and more like Jimmy Carter on a daily basis.

    Secondly his press conferences are nothing more then snicker sessions where he makes fun of anyone who questions his decisions and uses sarcasm to deal with his critics. While cute. This will only go so far before it begins wearing on the people. The people want answers and action. He has acted. His party has put forth a debacle of a bill.

    Now he is going to spend the next 3 months convincing you the reason that America is failing is because the GOP want it to fail when in reality they have ZERO to do with the implementation of this stimulus package and even less to do with the operation of government.

  4. I grew up in a military family and was in the military myself for a while. I really have mixed feelings on this. I recognize that the public should see some of the negative sides of war – it's only in that way that good decisions about war can be made in the future.

    On the other hand these pictures will surely be used as propaganda. I wouldn't want to see the coffin of my father, myself, or my son to be displayed in the media or on websites serving as material for comments, jokes, F-bombs, etc. It should come down to the family's wishes regardless of what politicians decide.

  5. DG:

    Of course, the final decision on each individual returning hero “should come down to the family's wishes regardless of what politicians decide.”

    That's a given and that's what I meant by: “This can and should be done consistent with every respect and due considerations for the hardship, grief, privacy, etc. of the surviving family members, and regardless of future political considerations.”

    Not only should the families be notified that their hero is coming home on a certain day, at a specific time (and this does not have to be in the middle of the night, as the practice has been to date), and those close family members who agree to a public homecoming should be invited at government expense (an infinitesimal small price to pay for their sacrifice) to welcome their hero home.

    Thanks for your comment

  6. Dorian i agree fully on this one. . .

    The ones that have seen war will never stop seeing it.

    The ones that have lost loved ones will never stop knowing that loss.

    We the people, elect people that make the decisions for war, we need to see the war with all of its losses and sacrifice of life and limb. It is about their honor and our responsibility.

    I agree about the families, i would hope if a plan and action can be implemented for massive war, then a plan for honoring the fallen should be high priority. Another thing have wondered about, in this time when we have so many fractured families and throw away children, what happens to those soldiers whose only family was the ones that fought along side with them? How does the military handle those situations, with the current situation does anyone honor those fallen?

    Lastly, it should be the requirement that every Commander in Chief and Secretary of Defense meet the remains of the fallen soldiers and be the wordless honor guards to escort the bodies back to the families residence. No better use of tax payer money.

  7. Thanks, river.

    I have not seen the movie, “Taking Chance,” but apparently it's about Marine Lt. Col. escorting home the body of a fellow Marine killed in Iraq.

    Althought this particular hero does have parents back home, a similar honor escort back home should be arranged for every fallen hero who may not have immediate family to meet him, or her.

    Dorian

  8. Dorian…

    You have blogged a number of times on the Medal of Honor issue…something which has gone under the radar, and probably will continue to do so.
    (I have often puzzled at how politicians will publicly honor military service, while slighting (i.e., shoddy health care) those who have served. Thus, I think this is a symbolically very important issue. )

    Whenever I have read your posts I have wondered each time about the following points, and am finally asking:

    (1) Why do you think this is? Is it institutional . . . or an administration (political/ideological) issue?

    (2) Does the argument that limiting the medal being granted increases its “value” — and, by extension, the other honors granted members of the armed forces – hold any weight in your opinion?

    I don't know if you will read this, or whether the caravan has gone by, but I am curious as to your views given your perspective as a Vet.

  9. Marlowecan:

    These are good questions.

    Although I am familiar with military awards and decorations, I am not an expert in the area, so please consider these first-blush comments, until I do additional research.

    But, basically, the Medal of Honor, is our country's highest military decoration awarded for–as the award citation reads—for “[Conspicuous] gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against any enemy of the United States….

    And, yes, being such a high honor and to maintain its “value,” as you say, it should be bestowed only when such conditions are met. There are several other decorations for “lesser” acts of valor and heroism.

    One of the “reasons” I have heard cited for, in my opinion, the extremely low number of Medals of Honor awarded to Iraq and Afghanistan heroes, as compared to Vietnam, for example, is that the type of warfare we are fighting in Iraq (and perhaps in Afghanistan) is not as much the “hand-to-hand” combat, trench warfare, “rushing a hill, or machine gun bunker,” “throwing oneself upon a tossed grenade” that lends itself to the frequency of acts of conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of one's own life's to, for example, save your buddies.

    This may be true to some effect, but don't tell me that we have had only a handful acts of valor deserving such a high honor in seven years of fierce fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    A second reason might be, as I have hinted (and I hope it's so) that it probably takes a very long time, to “vet” and process someone for the Medal, so several could still be “in the pipeline.” I hope so.

    But if you look just at the number of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan (almost 5,000 combined) and the number of casualties in the Vietnam war Between 55,000 and 60,000) you have a about 11 times more of our troops killed in Vietnam than in Iraq/Afghanistan.

    As I have mentioned, there were 245 Medals of Honor awarded for Vietnam heroes, almost 50 times as many as have been awarded for Iraq-Afghanistan heroes to date.

    Now, I am not saying that this is a valid or relevant statistical comparison, but it does catch my attention.

    Finally, as to whether this is “institutional . . . or an administration (political/ideological) issue?”

    Institutional, perhaps.

    Political/ideological, I hope not. Although, from an administration that so loudly claimed that it was supporting the troops, I woudl have expected more But, regardless, this is one opportunity for Obama to set the record straight.

  10. Thank you, Dorian.

    Your response was quite fascinating…especially the theory about “type of warfare” influencing Medal of Honor awards.

    The Medal of Honor issue has been one of those “brain worms” that has been niggling at the back of my head from the first time you noted it here at TMV.
    Whenever I would read about Medal of Honor awards…for example, in Mogadishu back in the 90s…I would be reminded of it.

    As for your last point — “Political/ideological, I hope not.” — to be honest, I had wondered.

    For example, while many on the Left made hay about the prospect of Bush pardons, President Bush was actually extremely stingy in giving them out…in comparison to his predecessors.
    Much as with the Medal of Honor, the pardons are a highly bureaucratic process (with the exception of the obvious political ones).
    So I had wondered about the parallel with the low Medal of Honor count.

    Anyhow, as you say, one hopes not.

    Thanks again.

  11. Now, there is a “phenomenom” that really caught me by surprise. I had expected Bush to issue scores of pardons, and even blanket pardons, to his cronies, sorry, to members of his staff and administration—still “employed” or not. But he didn't. I have my own theories, but I would love for someone with much more insight, authority and talent to investigate this fascinating event.

    Back to the Medal of Honor, it is just my theory. When I come across a more plausible or valide explanation, and/or some facts, I'll share.

  12. I think that medals of honor usually work themselves thru the pipeline and take a number of years to be completed.

    A friend of mine was with the 101st Airborne in Vietnam in 1969 and was finally nominated for the Medal of Honor in 2000. 31 years later.

    I feel that most likely the resultant lack of Medals being awarded to our soldiers for their acts of bravery in Iraq/Afghanistan is more the result of the intense anitwar fever in this country then it is in the lack of heroic deeds being done on the battlefields. As a result I have full confidence that those who are worthy of such awards will in the end get them. And if they do not then Im reminded of another friend in Vietnam who was shot down twice in the same day only to be told that they were out of helicopters till morning.

  13. GS:

    I have to respectfully, but strongly, disagree with you on your comment that “I feel that most likely the resultant lack of Medals being awarded to our soldiers for their acts of bravery in Iraq/Afghanistan is more the result of the intense anitwar fever in this country then it is in the lack of heroic deeds being done on the battlefields.”

    While the majority of Americans did, and do oppose the war in Iraq, there is absolutely no basis for your implied claim that such opposition would “rub of” on denying our heroes their so richly deserved recognitions.

    On the contrary, if you will objectively analyze the legislative action that benefitted our troops during the last eight years, it was the Democrats that pushed for the vast majority of them. I challenge you to find credible evidence to support your implied claim.

    I oppose the war, yet I have been vehemently pushing for better benefits, better health care, and better recognition for our troops. Yes, I support the troops, regardless of disingenuous claims to the contrary by “gung-ho” Republicans.

    As to your examples of a Medal of Honor being awarded 31 years later, those are exceptions.

  14. There are two distinct protocols for awarding the Medal of Honor. The first and most common is nomination by a service member in the chain of command, followed by approval at each level of command. The other method is nomination by a member of Congress (generally at the request of a constituent) and approval by a special act of Congress. In either case, the Medal of Honor is presented by the President on behalf of the Congress.

    You don't even understand how the medals are awarded.

  15. * CHAIN OF COMMAND
    Submits award reccomendation that meets the two year submission time limit to Department of the Army Personnel Command
    * MEMBER OF CONGRESS
    Submits award recommendation that is outside the two year limit for submission to Department of the Army Personnel Command or the Secretary of the Army who forwards request to Personnel Command.
    * DEPARTMENT OF THE ARMY PERSONNEL COMMAND
    Army Decoration Board – Merit Review, can disprove based on criteria (Cdr, HRC can overrule)
    Senior Army Decorations Board – Recommends approval, disapproval, or downgrade.
    * MANPOWER AND RESERVE AFFAIRS
    Concurs or nonconcurs with Board recommendation
    * CHIEF OF STAFF OF THE ARMY
    Concurs or nonconcurs with Board recommendation
    * SECRETARY OF THE ARMY
    Recommends approval or can disapprove. Also forwards packet to Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff for comment.
    * SECRETARY OF DEFENSE
    Recommends approval or can disapprove.
    * PRESIDENT
    Approves or disapproves.

  16. GDS

    I again ask you to provide fact sto back up your:

    “I feel that most likely the resultant lack of Medals being awarded to our soldiers for their acts of bravery in Iraq/Afghanistan is more the result of the intense anitwar fever in this country then it is in the lack of heroic deeds being done on the battlefields”

    That comment is what started this debate, not the “protocols” for awarding the Medal of Honor, which I can just as easily look up in Wikipedia and elsewhere…

  17. Well if you understand the protocols then you also understand that a democratic congress can award medals of honor.

    Why havent they?

  18. While the majority of Americans did, and do oppose the war in Iraq, there is absolutely no basis for your implied claim that such opposition would “rub of” on denying our heroes their so richly deserved recognitions.

    Here you are wrong again.

    Proof.

    A 1993 study commissioned by the Army described systematic racial and religious discrimination in the criteria for awarding medals during World War II.

  19. I find your entire post flawed. But Im glad you continue to advocate for our troops. I am a Vietnam vet who was actually in combat. I understand.

    Any continuation of this will be an attempt by either of us to paint the other as a cowardly “gung ho Republican” and I never intended that. I only wished to point out that from my perspective that the process is inhibited because of bias. Just as their was racial bias proved I feel that political bias has contributed to the lack of medals at this time. That is not to impugn the integrity or valor of the soldiers nor is it my desire to even suggest that there are not many more deserving of this medal.

    I simply pointed out that there is bias. its been proven in the past. Civil war. WW1 and WW2. et al. I rest my case. I will give you the last word.

  20. GS says:

    “Proof.

    A 1993 study commissioned by the Army described systematic racial and religious discrimination in the criteria for awarding medals during World War II.”

    Wow! That certainly proves that there is “systematic racial and religious discrimination in the criteria for awarding medals” in 2009 during the Iraq/Afghanistan wars…

  21. I have come back to this post for found myself continuing to think about Marlowecan's question?

    Is it institutional . . . or an administration (political/ideological) issue? Your points are grounded and insightful. . .

    I do not truly understand the process of awarding metals. . .but found my own suspicion of President Bush and his dynamics leaving questions???

    I was not surprised Bush did not pardon many people. While a Gov. of Texas, he showed himself to be rigid, HARD, and unbending on issues considering executions. . . the 911 “dead or alive” and “you are either with us or against us”. . . the decision and use of torture. . . his leaving office with ' i never compromised my values'. . . examples could go on and on. .

    Judgment based on his religious ideological interpretations were his calling cards. . .there was no evidence for a capacity for layered complex issues such the ones spoken here. . .

    I once heard a story from India about the village idiot. . .He was so very distraught because every time he opened his mouth people would start laughing and kicking him about because he was so ignorant. . .He went to the Old Wise One in the community and asked what must i do for people to stop kicking me around and calling me stupid?. . . .The Old Wise One said, “O this is quite simple, every time someone says something find a No for every thing, and people will begin to think you are highly intelligent.” Sure enough within a year the idiot was elected major of the village.

    Just my rambling thoughts as i continue to think of this issue on the Metals of Honor. . .

  22. river:

    Just one final thougt, and I think I'll go on to greener pastures:

    There have been some comments ascribing the few number of Medals of Honor to the “protocols”, the process, etc. to award the Medal.

    Having been in the military and having myself recommended personnel for various awards and decoartions (of course none as valued as the Medal of Honor) I don't have to be told how buraucratic and time-cousuming the process is–especially for the highest military award in our nation.

    But here is my thought, valid or not: A commander-in-chief who has ther power tyo command his generals to attack and invade a nation, should have, just maybe, the power to “suggest” to his generals to cut the crap, to cut the red tape and to speed the process up somewhat…

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