The Medal of Honor: Too Few and Too Late?

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I have always been in awe of the incredible acts of valor and selfless sacrifice our military are capable of.

More recently, I have been puzzled—and have questioned—why there have been so few Medals of Honor awarded to our heroes who have continued to “distinguish themselves conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of their lives above and beyond the call of duty” in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Furthermore, all six Medals of Honor awarded for heroism in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have, sadly, been awarded posthumously.

Yesterday, President Obama presented only the sixth Medal of Honor for valor in Iraq and Afghanistan to Army Sgt. 1st Class Jared Monti—posthumously.

Several possible reasons have been advanced for such dearth of recognition, including:

** Changes in warfare and combat tactics, and technological advances. For example, the suggestion that precision-guided stand-off weapons allow our forces to engage and destroy the enemy with reduced risks to themselves.

** Related to this, the reduction in face-to-face engagements, because the enemy uses tactics such as remotely detonated roadside bombs (IEDs), rockets, mortar and sniper attacks and other unconventional means—like suicide bombers.

** A backlash against the proliferation of medals awarded in other conflicts, including the 1991 Gulf War.

** More stringent criteria and a review process that has become too rigorous, too exacting and too long. For example, during the Clinton administration it took a little over six months to posthumously award Medals of Honor to Army Master Sgt. Gary Gordon and Army Sgt. 1st Class Randall Shughart for heroic action in Somalia. On the other hand, during the Bush administration, the speediest Medal of Honor approval took 18 months and one took as long as three years.

** There are some who claim that the process has become too “politicized,” or even that the military awards system “is broken.”

Subscribing to the latter is former Marine Joseph Kinney, a Vietnam veteran who has advocated for greater recognition of heroism in combat.

According to the Air Force Times, Kinney testified before the House Armed Services Committee in 2006, urging the Pentagon to be more consistent in applying award criteria and to speed the review process for Medal of Honor nominees, and said: “The system has failed because of this inordinate fear that somebody is going to get the Medal of Honor [and] be an embarrassment…They decided that the Medal of Honor should go not only to people who are brave, but pure.”

** Finally, even the possibility of “inadvertent subjective bias amongst commanders.” This has been suggested by Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, R-Calif., a Marine combat veteran who served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.

Hunter has been aggressively pressing Congress and the Department of Defense to take a close look at the entire Medals of Honor issue, not just the meager number of nominations, but also why the only six Medal of Honor awarded have been to heroes who died during their acts of valor.

Duncan also dismisses many of the arguments that have been advanced to justify both phenomena.

The Congressman has support from the troops on the ground:

In recent letters to Military Times, officers and enlisted members have vented about the fact that so few of the 1.8 million troops who have deployed since 2001 have received the military’s most coveted medal:

“Nobody can honestly tell me that as this war goes into its eighth year, there are only five men deserving Medals of Honor, and all of them died,” wrote Army Master Sgt. Eric Schaffer. “In hundreds of thousands of hours of combat, hundreds of thousands of firefights, battles and actions of all sorts, there have been … only five instances where a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine has demonstrated incredible valor?”

Hopefully things are about to change.

Rep. Hunter has convinced the House Armed Services Committee to order a full review of the criteria used for awarding the Medal of Honor, including why no Medal of Honor has been awarded to a living service member since Vietnam.

Hunter’s call for a review has been approved by the House of Representatives as part of its version of the 2010 defense authorization bill.

It looks like Hunter received some very high level support yesterday, at least on the issue of living Medal of Honor recipients.

According to the Army/Navy Times, on the same day that President Barack Obama presented the Medal of Honor to Sgt. Jared Monti, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said reviews are underway that may result in the nation’s top military honor being presented to a living recipient of the current wars.

When asked at a Pentagon news conference: “Has no one [in the two wars] performed an act of courage worthy of the Medal of Honor and lived through it?” Gates responded “This has been a source of real concern to me…We are looking at this. Without getting into any detail … there are some [award recommendations] in process.”

“It is, as everybody knows, a very time-intensive, thorough process. But I would say that I’ve been told there are some living potential recipients that have been put forward.”

Gates also said “I think it was one of President Bush’s real regrets, that he did not have the opportunity to honor” a living Medal of Honor recipient.

Well, Mr. Gates and the new President now have not only that opportunity, but also the opportunity to recognize more of our troops who have distinguished themselves “conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of their lives above and beyond the call of duty” in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Next, the continuing saga of Medal of Honor nominee Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta.

Author: DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

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