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Posted by on Mar 26, 2009 in War | 3 comments

Mr. President: The Medal of Honor, Why a Measly Five?


Yesterday, March 25, was National Medal of Honor Day.

President Barack Obama marked the day at Arlington National Cemetery by laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, accompanied by four living recipients of the nation’s highest military award.

He also expressed his gratitude to all servicemen and women, especially those who have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor:

Since it was first awarded during the Civil War to the current battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, Medal of Honor recipients have displayed tremendous courage, an unfailing determination to succeed, and a humbling willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice…We must never forget their sacrifice and will always keep the Fallen and their families in our thoughts and prayers

A total of 35 Medal of Honor recipients attended the ceremonies with President Obama.

Sadly, none of the veterans present at the ceremonies yesterday, were recipients of the Medal for acts of heroism in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The reason is simple. Each of the Medal of Honor recipients from this war was killed in action or died from wounds received in action.

Furthermore, as the Air Force Times reported yesterday, the number of Medal of Honor recipients from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan can be counted on one hand.

Yes, only five of our heroes in those wars have been awarded the Medal of Honor to date.

All five received the Medal of Honor posthumously.

According to the Air Force Times, “With the exception of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, no other major conflict in modern military history has failed to produce a living recipient of the nation’s highest award for valor. And no war has ever produced so few Medal of Honor — or service cross — recipients.”

This affront to our heroes has vexed me for almost as long as the Afghanistan-Iraq war has been going on.

As the number of years of our involvement, and our casualties, mounted in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I have become increasingly dismayed at the measly number of Medals of Honor that have been awarded to our heroes in those wars.

When my first letter on this issue was published by the New York Times in August, 2006—over three years into the Iraq war—our nation had seen fit to award the Medal of Honor to only one hero of the Afghanistan-Iran war. The hero, Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith, received his medal posthumously.

A few months later, when the second Medal of Honor was awarded to Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham—again, posthumously—I wrote in the Air Force Times, in part:

After five years of combat in the Afghanistan-Iraq Theater, it is baffling that only two Medals of Honor have been awarded 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.

It is deplorable that in a war on terrorism touted by our president as being for such a noble cause, we are so remiss in honoring what surely must be numerous instances of “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life,” as the citation for the Medal of honor reads….Let‘s hope that the recent changes in Congress and at the defense department will result in better, more frequent and timely recognition of our heroes.”

But, I was whistling in the wind.

I have continued to lament what I feel is an injustice to our heroes, during the remaining years of the Bush administration and, now, under President Obama. As recently as February 15 in a post at The Moderate Voice I wrote:

Mr. Obama…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…

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.

Finally, I am no longer whistling in the wind.

Yesterday, the Air Force Times, one of the publications of the venerable Army Times Publishing Company, published an excellent and extended report on this issue

The article, “Death before this honor” examines:

The numbers and the disparity:

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.

The Process:

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.

The Times asks: Is the process “politicized?”

The Reasons:

There are several possible reasons: the proliferation of other valor awards; the changing nature of warfare; and a review process that has become so rigorous — and, some say, meddlesome — that no living person can be good enough to pass all the tests.

The Times also discusses many other factors, statistics, troop reactions and examples of the kind of heroes who have been awarded—and not awarded—the Medal of Honor.

One hero who falls into the latter category is Sgt. Rafael Peralta “who was denied the Medal of Honor in 2008 — a case that drew heavy scrutiny, including use of forensic evidence — questions were raised about whether Peralta’s onetime status as an illegal immigrant played a part in the decision.”

I highly recommend this comprehensive and fascinating article, written by Brendan McGarry, to anyone who wants to learn more about Sgt. Peralta’s story, about the Medal of Honor, and about the heroes who earn this high award.

Having read the Times report, I share with former Marine Joseph Kinney, a Vietnam veteran who has advocated for greater recognition of heroism in combat, his hope, “I think we’re going to see more Medals of Honor. I think [President Barack] Obama will push it.”

And I share the hope of U.S. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James T. Conway, “We have a case that I’ve sent an investigating officer out to take a look at on the West Coast that, if proven, I think will prompt me to recommend the Medal of Honor for a living Marine.”

If General Conway succeeds, that Marine will be the first hero to receive the Medal of Honor, while still living, during the conflict in which he earned the award—since 1973.

Please write the President, write your legislators. Our heroes deserve better!

Medals of Honor Image, Courtesy Air Force Times