The Medal of Honor: A Medal Too Far?
Almost five years into the Afghanistan war and three years into the Iraq war, something started to nag at me, something just didn’t seem right.
In spite of the high number of casualties (killed in action and seriously maimed and wounded); in spite of the heroic deeds we knew our brave troops were accomplishing; and in spite of the importance of those wars to the security of our country, a woefully small number of Medals of Honor, our nation’s highest military award for battlefield valor, were being awarded.
In letters to the editor and in other articles, I questioned this troubling phenomenon, and in my own small way I urged our military and national leaders to look into this issue.
For example, in August 2006, in a letter, ”Recognize Our Heroes,” and commenting on an Op-Ed by Joseph A. Kinney on this very same issue, I wrote in part:
In a war touted by our president as being for such a noble cause, I cannot think of a more noble gesture than for him to recognize what surely are instances of “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life,” as the citation for the [M]edal [of Honor] reads.
At the time, our nation had seen fit to award the Medal of Honor to only one hero of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith (Sgt. Smith received his Medal posthumously).
At that time, we had already lost more than 2,800 of our brave troops in the two wars.
At the time, I was hoping that many more of our heroes were being considered for our nation’s highest military decoration—I was hoping that many more recommendations were “in the pipeline.”
But this was not to be.
Three months later, the second Medal of Honor was awarded.
In a December 11, 2006, letter in the Air Force Times, I wrote how inspiring the heroic actions that earned Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham the Medal of Honor were, and commented:
Not so inspiring is the fact that the Medal of Honor for this hero is only the second awarded in the war on terrorism. After five years of combat in the Afghanistan-Iraq theater, it is baffling that only two Medals of Honor have been awarded to our war heroes. In contrast, there were 245 Medal of Honor recipients during the Vietnam War, and 27 Medals of Honor were awarded for the single World War II battle of Iwo Jima.
Of course, I was not the only one who noticed such dearth of recognition.
Joseph Kinney—mentioned above—was one of them. Several others have done likewise.
But perhaps the most factual and seminal account of this breakdown in respect and recognition for our heroes was written by Brendan McGarry, staff writer at the Military Times, in March of this year.
McGarry starts his column, “Death before this honor,” with these words: “The number of Medal of Honor recipients from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan can be counted on one hand.”
Keep in mind; it is now March 2009, more than seven years into the war in Afghanistan, six years into the war in Iraq. Almost 5,000 of our troops have been killed and more than 32,000 have been wounded in the two wars.
And the number of those considered worthy of our nation’s highest military award for battlefield heroism “can be counted on one hand.”?
In “Mr. President: The Medal of Honor, Why a Measly Five?” I discussed McGarry’s superb column, including these cold, hard facts:
From World War I through Vietnam, the rate of Medal of Honor recipients per 100,000 service members stayed between 2.3 (Korea) and 2.9 (World War II). But since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, only five Medals of Honor have been awarded, a rate of 0.1 per 100,000 — one in a million.
McGarry’s article also disputes the often-heard excuses about bureaucracy, red tape, the lengthy approval process, etc.
It took just 6½ months for the Clinton administration 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 Oct. 3, 1993.
By contrast, during the Bush years, the speediest Medal of Honor approval took 18 months. One took as long as three years.
McGarry also asks whether the process has been “politicized,” and discusses many other factors, statistics, and examples of the kind of heroes who have been awarded—and not awarded—the Medal of Honor.
Last month, President Obama announced that he would be awarding the Medal of Honor to Army Sgt. 1st Class Jared C. Monti, who was killed by enemy fire on June 21, 2006, while trying to rescue wounded comrades in the mountains of Afghanistan.
Sgt. 1st Class Monti thus becomes the first hero awarded our nation’s highest honor under the Obama administration, and only the sixth soldier to receive the Medal of Honor after almost eight years of combat in Afghanistan and more than six years of combat in Iraq.
Mr. Obama has been in office for almost seven months—more than enough time to prime and get that “pipeline” flowing again.
When it comes to our heroes, I am an equal opportunity critic. I have decried the dearth of Medals of Honor awarded to our heroes during the Bush administration and I will continue to lament, under our new president, what I feel is a continuing injustice.
Fortunately, those of us who have been a lone voice in the wilderness are no longer alone.
An article in this morning’s New York Times gives me new hope.
In, “Lawmaker Questions Low Medal of Honor Count,” we finally hear, in reference to the six Medals of Honor, that “For some veterans and members of Congress, that last number simply doesn’t add up. They question how so few Medals of Honor — all awarded posthumously — could be bestowed for two wars of such magnitude and duration.”
Again, Pentagon officials attempt to blame this on the changed nature of war, roadside bombs, the lack of firefights and close combat, etc., etc.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., son of Duncan L. Hunter, and a former Marine officer who served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, doesn’t accept those explanations. He has sponsored legislation “that directs the secretary of defense to review current trends in awarding the Medal of Honor to determine what’s behind the low count. The bill passed the House. If Senate negotiators go along, Secretary Robert Gates would have to report back by March 31.”
While, in my opinion, this is too much time to review something that is so flagrantly wrong, it is a start.
Hunter has it right when he says:
It seems like our collective standard for who gets the Medal of Honor has been raised…The basis of warfare is you’ve got to take ground and then you’ve got to hold it. That takes people walking into houses, running up hills, killing bad guys and then staying there and rebuffing counterattacks…That’s how warfare has always been no matter how many bombs you drop and how many predators you have flying around.
Kudos to Congressman Hunter and, also, to AMVETS, a veteran’s advocacy group, that supports Hunter’s efforts.
The author of the article, Kevin Freking, also says that it’s unclear exactly how many soldiers have been nominated for the Medal of Honor from the two wars. “But, seven have made it all the way to the secretary of defense, and six were approved. The exception is Sgt. Rafael Peralta of San Diego, Calif.”
Freking is referring to Marine Sergeant Rafael Peralta, a Mexican immigrant who became a U.S. citizen while in the Marine Corps and who gave his life to protect his Marine buddies during a firefight in Fallujah, Iraq.
For his “undaunted courage, intrepid fighting spirit, and unwavering devotion to duty,” Sergeant Peralta was nominated for the Medal of Honor by the Commandant of the Marine Corps and by the Secretary of the Navy.
Regrettably, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, for some yet-to-be-determined reason, rejected the Marine Corps’ recommendation for Sgt. Peralta to receive the Medal of Honor. Instead, Peralta would be receiving the Navy Cross.
I have written extensively on this case, for example in “Stolen Valor at the Highest Levels: The Case of Sgt. Rafael Peralta.”
It is about a travesty that cries for redress. Several California lawmakers, including Congressman Bob Filner, Representative for California’s 51st Congressional District (Sgt. Peralta’s district), have petitioned President Obama to order a review of Peralta’s case.
Hopefully, Marine Sergeant Rafael Peralta will become the seventh, or the eighth, or even the 20th recipient of the Medal of Honor for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.