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Stories of American Heroes - Brought to you from the "Home of Heroes" - Pueblo, Colorado

Medals of Honor
Belated Awards & Upgrades

Commentary by your Webmaster
C. Douglas Sterner
January 1, 2003


 

 

A few weeks ago I was attending a breakfast for Colorado Veterans when a lady approached me.  She had been told I was the "expert" on the Medal of Honor and she came with a series of questions.  She had recently learned that Congress had ordered review of lesser awards for Hispanic veterans for possible upgrade to Medals of Honor.  Her personal quest was to try and have her father's Silver Star upgraded, and she wanted my advice.  Instead, I gave her an opinion.

"Who," I asked her, "Is Silvestre Herrera?"

She replied that she had never heard of him.  So I spent a few minutes sharing with her the story of a great man who earned the Medal of Honor during World War II, serving the United States though he wasn't even an American citizen.  "The point is," I explained, "that we do not need to create MORE heroes, we need to work harder to learn about the ones we already have and insure that their stories are never forgotten."

Her inquiry was not uncommon.  In view of the large number of Medals of Honor awarded over the last decade (forty-one in all, only two of which were for current actions), it seems everywhere I turn I am inundated by people on a quest to get a belated Medal of Honor for a heroic father, uncle, or fellow veteran.  In Wyoming an entire city is trying to get a Medal of Honor belatedly awarded its namesake, for his actions during the Indian Campaigns.

While I can understand the reasoning behind the efforts during the 1990s to correct the prejudice that saw no Medals of Honor awarded to Black Americans during either of the World Wars, and only one awarded to the brave Asian-Americans of the most decorated 442nd RCT, the process set precedents that are now becoming a major problem.  The fact is, during a decade of peace time (aside from the action in Somalia), President Bill Clinton presented a total of 36 Medals of Honor, only two less than President Lyndon Johnson presented between 1964-69 at the height of the Vietnam War.  In the years ahead President Bush may award even more Medals of Honor than President Clinton, though not necessarily for heroism in the current actions, but for heroism ranging from the Civil War through Vietnam.  

 

History Repeats Itself

When Congress established the Medal of Honor, it was dubiously accepted among the rank-and-file of the Civil War Army and Navy.  Medals were a European tradition, often given for political purposes rather than for heroism, and worn by royalty or officers, not the ordinary soldier.   By the end of the Civil War fewer than 650 Medals of Honor had been awarded.

Fifteen years after the war ended, an aging veteran population looked back on its war exploits and the Medal of Honor became more desirable--even envied.  From the year 1880 until the establishment of new guidelines for award of the Medal in 1917 more Medals of Honor were awarded than during the war--some 750 of them.  In many cases a veteran nominated himself for a Medal of Honor, requesting the same in a letter to the Secretary of War while relating an account of his own heroic actions.  

Veterans have ALWAYS told war stories, tales of heroism that may have begun in fact, then become somewhat embellished over the years.   These belated awards therefore, were often without any real merit and quickly diminished the prestige of the award.  This abuse, though perhaps entirely unintentional, led to the establishment of new criteria in 1917-18, along with a "Pyramid of Honor" to recognize other acts of heroism not meriting the Medal of Honor.  The concept was to preserve the Medal of Honor for only the highest acts of heroism.  Included in this sweeping series of changes was a time limit--Medal of Honor nominations had to be made within one year of the heroic act.  (In 1963 this was changed to require nominations for the Army and Air Force Medal to be made within two years of the act of heroism, and three years for members of the U.S. Navy.)

Today, it seems, the time limits and other constraints established to preserve the integrity of the Medal of Honor, no longer matter.  Instead, the Medal of Honor is becoming a political tool, not only in terms of striving for political correctness, but for individual legislator's constituency.  Several members of Congress over the last couple years have acquiesced to the pleas of family members or individual veterans groups to upgrade someone's lesser award to the Medal of Honor.  While I understand, and even support the efforts that set precedent for the current trend, I am of the opinion that it has begun to get far out-of-hand, and should be curbed before we find the Medal becoming too commonplace--a return to the mistakes of the 1880s and 1890s.  

 

There are a couple reasons why I oppose continued reviews for possible Medal of Honor upgrades:

1)  Virtually every man who has ever served in combat knows someone who probably earned a Medal of Honor but didn't get one.  

Every Medal of Honor recipient I have ever met has been quick to note that their award was NOT their own--that they wore it in honor and memory of all the other men with whom they served--soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who might have themselves earned a Medal of Honor if the true acts of their heroism had been known.  As such, these heroes see the Medal of Honor as a symbolic award, worn by one man chosen to represent the service, sacrifice and valor of millions.

During World War II more than forty thousand Marines made the initial landing at Iwo Jima in the Pacific. The inscription on the famous Marine Corps memorial in Washington, DC speaks well of the efforts of these men..."Uncommon Valor was a Common Virtue".   In the weeks of intense fighting that followed, battles that saw thousands more soldiers and Marines land on the island, twenty-seven men earned Medals of Honor (the most of any single battle of World War II.)  Certainly many more men could have been awarded our Nation's highest award for military valor at Iwo Jima but for whatever reason, did not.  In many cases of combat heroism the simple requirement of two living eyewitnesses to attest to the heroic act has precluded award to a deserving American.  It fell to the examples of but 27 men, only thirteen of whom survived, to become a living memorial to all who fought and died at Iwo Jima.  It is appropriate.

If a thousand, or even forty thousands Medals of Honor had been awarded at Iwo, it would have only lessened the meaning of the Medal.

The Medal of Honor stands as the ultimate symbol of valor Above and Beyond the Call of Duty because of its rarity--fewer than 3,500 awarded to the nearly 40 million men and women who have served in uniform since the Medal was established during the Civil War.   Of 2.5 million Americans who served in Vietnam, only 245 were awarded Medals of Honor.  One of them once related to me the manner in which he was informed of his nomination.  Following a horrible battle during which this soldier's entire squad repulsed a heavy enemy assault, his commanding officer visited him in the hospital.  Three members of the squad had been killed in action, all others wounded.

As the C.O. visited with this young soldier he told him:  "You know, probably every man in your squad earned a Medal of Honor in that battle.  Of course, I can not nominate a dozen men for the award.  For that reason, I am submitting YOU for the Medal, knowing you will wear it well on behalf of all the others."  He has indeed, and everywhere he visits today, those who meet him are reminded not of his own heroic actions, but of the sacrifice of his comrades.  Most who have spent any time with this Medal of Honor recipient can quickly name the three men killed in that battle, for this Medal of Honor recipient sees his role as one of keeping the memory of their heroism alive.

 

2)  Legislating Medals of Honor puts the award into the hands of men and women who don't even know what the Medal is about. 

Most recent Medal of Honor upgrades were provisions attached to the Military Appropriations Act of each year.  This opens the potential for approval of awards, not based upon merit, but upon the political clout of the legislator who attaches it.  Only one member of the current Senate, and none in the House of Representatives, wears the Medal of Honor.  There are fewer members of Congress that have served in uniform than perhaps at any time in our Nation's history.  Most of these couldn't name two Medal of Honor recipients in our Nation's history--most couldn't distinguish between the Medal of Honor and a marksmanship badge.   

I, for one, do not want this group of people to select our nation's greatest heroes.

 

3)  Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross, Air Force Cross, Silver Star--they ain't Chicken Feed!

I've honestly admitted I never considered any of the above during my service in Vietnam.  I did hope perhaps to get a Silver Star--and I didn't.  I never earned one, and always considered it an award far above my own level of achievement.  Those who did earn a Silver Star or higher, certainly have my utmost respect.  My closest friend whose story inspired this website, earned a Silver Star and his citation reads like many MOH citations I've read.  I would never belittle what Jaime did by saying the Silver Star wasn't good enough, however, and join the throng trying to get something better.  I fondly remember him, his great valor, and respect what he did receive.   

Sometimes in trying too hard, we defeat our own purpose.  Perhaps a good example is found in one of the greatest Marine Corps legends that ever lived, Chesty Puller.  General Puller wore FIVE Navy Crosses, but no Medal of Honor.  Years ago there was an effort to get one of his Navy Crosses upgraded.  Consider this:

 

Life isn't Fair--It's just LIFE!

I can think of a lot of things I've done in life that I never received credit for.  On the other hand, I've been blessed far more than I deserve.  I guess in the long-run, it balances out.  In life we play the hand we're dealt and do our best, we don't reshuffle the deck to gain an advantage.

Are there hundreds of soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who earned Medals of Honor that never got one?

Can we correct this oversight? 

We don't need to create MORE heroes, to present more belated Medals of Honor.  The Medal of Honor has already been awarded to EVERY veteran, man or woman, who has served honorably and with valor in time of war.  That Medal hangs around the neck of one of the 139 men who belong to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.  Ask them who that Medal belongs to...they'll tell you the same thing.

My question then to those who ask for my advice on getting the medal of a loved one upgraded to the Medal of Honor is:

"Can you name for me just FIVE of the men who DO wear the Medal of Honor?"

These men wear that medal for the very person you love and remember.  Learn who THEY are, and in honoring them, you honor your own hero.

Of course, that's just MY opinion.  You can use the form below to share your own.

 

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I agree with much of what you say above. But I do not agree that lesser awards should not be reviewed for possible upgrade to the Medal of Honor. I do agree this review should not be handled by Congress or any politicans but by those who have received the Medal of Honor already. They would not let it be devalued but would instead honor men who may have been overlooked for whatever reason. Anyway, thank you for your insights and keep up the good work!
Michael Kennedy <GaDixie86@aol.com>
Savannah, Georgia USA -
My father was awarded the silver star for action in Vietnam. This medal, along with the other various medals he's received in his 30 year career in the Marine Corps, to me makes him an actual living real American Hero. That in itself, I feel, is enough. To try and "upgrade" his medal would only seem to lessen his heroism to that of a political symbol. As you wrote in your opinion, has my father earned the Medal of Honor? Absolutely! Should he be awarded one? NO! Honor those who served. Keeping the memory of thier sacrifice alive is far more important than trying to change a medal. Thanks for letting me voice my opinion.
Robert Chandler <Chandler_Clan@msn.com>
Eugene, OR USA -
There are many reasons why I believe you are wrong. In addition to the 22 Asian and 7 African American you mention in your article, heroes like Roy Benavidez, William Pitsebarger, Robert Ingram, Rocky Versace come quickly to mind. Had reviews/upgrades not been accomplished the world would not know of these heroes nor of their heroics. In addition to race, many other factors have led to issuance of an award lesser than the MOH. Lack of eyewitness that later became available, the inability of properly wording an award , the feeling of some commanders that "he was just doing his job" are just a few. I vehemently disagree with your contention that we would be "creating more heroes". No matter what we do, we cannot "create a hero". A hero creates himself. We merely honor the (f)act and the person.
John Bruneel <usnretdocb@praxis.net>
Ocala, Fl USA -
There should continue to be a review of awards. But this should be done carefully and selectively. Many of the awards that were presented after the Vietnam War had come to a conclusion were, I would argue, for actions that were truly heroic. Suggestions had been made that the lesser medal should be upgraded. It took many years but in the end, the Medal of Honor was presented because more documentation and witnesses were found to finish the necessary requirements before presentation. Otherwise men like Roy Benavidez, Ed Freeman, Robert Ingraham, and Rocky Versace would have been left behind. Having read Benavidez's citation and with it the details of his action, for someone to have done something like that, yet come out of the action alive, is very much worthy of the MOH. We should not permit this medal to be carelessly given away. Let the reviews be handled by the recipients themselves and some non-partisan and unbiased reviewers. It may never happen to me, but if I was invited to be a part of that, I would be most honored.
Tim Weiler <weilerium@msn.com>
Elgin, IL USA -

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