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Revamping Our
Military Awards Process

Is Congress Meddling where it doesn't belong?

January 2007

Before the 109th Congress adjourned in December 2006, the House Armed Services Committee found the time to hold a hearing on the military awards process. The primary concern was a question--has the criteria for the Medal of Honor become so restrictive that veterans of the War on Terrorism have been denied legitimately earned Medals of Honor? Testimony pointed out that, while Operation Iraqi Freedom began more than three years earlier, only ONE Medal of Honor had been presented for heroism above and beyond the call of duty in the current action. Testimony further pointed out that the Medal of Honor posthumously awarded to Army Staff Sergeant Paul Ray Smith, the only man to receive the award to the date of the hearings, had taken two years from the time of his actions on April 4, 2003 until the presentation was made to his widow and two children on April 4, 2005. Further, it was pointed out, the award (posthumously) of a second OIF Medal of Honor to Marine Corporal Jason Dunham, had not been approved until November 2006 for an action that occurred more than two years earlier on April 14, 2004.

The Committee hearing certainly raised some interested eyebrows. The first witness was Marine Corps veteran Joseph Kinney, who earned a Purple Heart when he was seriously wounded in Vietnam. Having served as a senior aide in the U.S. Senate, Kinney knew the workings of Congress well. As an author he had studied and written on military awards. He noted: "The history of the Medal of Honor shows that it has been awarded in close proximity to the time of the heroic action." He then asked rhetorically, "Where are the medals that our living heroes should be receiving? Can it be that there is no deserving warfighter worthy of the Medal of Honor? No." 

Kinney pointed to the TWO-year delay in awarding Staff Sergeant Smith's Medal of Honor, and the TWO AND A HALF-year delay in approving Corporal Dunham's medal.  It was his belief that the approval stage was taking too long, dragging out the process for family members of deceased heroes. He also noted the need for living heroes to inspire the troops, noting the number of prompt, battlefield presentations of the Medal of Honor in World War II. His recommendation to the members of the House Armed Services Committee--"Posthumous Medals of Honor be granted with 72 hours of a death in combat and within 30 days of the act to living members."

The Appleton (WI) Post Crescent was typical of many in the media when it printed an editorial under the title: DELAYED MEDAL OF HONOR DECISIONS TARNISHING VALOR noting: "The House Armed Services Committee is trying to figure out exactly why American soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen aren't getting their due." There seemed to be a common consensus in media, as well as the general public, that:

  1. TOO FEW Medals of Honor were being awarded in the War on Terrorism, 

  2. It was taking too long to approve the few Medal of Honor nominations proffered, and

  3. Many of the citations for lesser awards (Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross, Air Force Cross and even Silver Stars) read like the citations for awards of the Medal of Honor in wars past.

Pentagon officials disagreed, pointing out that earlier in the year a comprehensive review of the awards process had been ordered to address uniform criteria between the services for military awards and the manner in which they are approved and awarded. As to the low number of OIF Medals of Honor, Pentagon officials testified that, compared to wars past, two Medals of Honor from Iraq initially might seem low, but that "wars no longer are fought between armed formations along front lines, and there often is a greater distance between American troops and their enemies. Even more, they argued, wars have exponentially fewer troops on the ground; World War II, for example, had millions of Americans in combat; the U.S. force in Iraq numbers about 139,000."

Having spent much of the last two years fighting with Congress for passage of the Stolen Valor Act, I knew intimately what Mr. Kinney was up against. For that reason I had to admire him, his drive, and his determination, while on points of fact I found myself disagreeing with him in principle. Shortly after the hearings, with media stories picking up the theme, I at last had to pin down my thoughts on the issue when a local television called me for an "expert opinion". This forced me to look at the facts, not just to disagree with Mr. Kinney based upon my general feelings in the matter. Here are the three things I noted from the chief concerns echoed in media reports, and what my research revealed:


It is indeed true that in the three-and-one-half years since American forces entered Iraq on March 20, 2003, only TWO Medals of Honor have been approved. I was amazed to find that number consistent with awards of the Medal of Honor in the Vietnam War. Based upon the dates for which the National Defense Service Medal (NDSM) is authorized for Vietnam Era veteran status, the Vietnam War is considered to have commenced on January 1, 1961. In fact, three-and-one half years later, not ONE Medal of Honor had been awarded, or even nominated, for Vietnam heroism. At last, on July 6, 1964, Special Forces Captain Roger Donlon performed acts of heroism that resulted in his nomination for the Medal of Honor. It was presented five months later on December 5.

By the end of 1966 the Vietnam War had been bitterly fought for FIVE years, yet through the end of December 1966, only SEVEN Medals of Honor had been actually awarded (out of what would ultimately proved to be 42 Medals of Honor during the FIVE YEAR period. All but 10 of the 245 Medals of Honor earned in Vietnam were for actions from January 1, 1961 to December 31, 1970. Yet by the end of 1970, only a little more than half (167) of the earned Medals of Honor  had been awarded. In fact, SIX awards were belated awards, approved and presented between 1998 and 2002.

Thus in point of fact, based upon a three-year old War on Terrorism, the smallness of the numbers of Medals of Honor actually awarded does not seem out of line with the Vietnam precedent. And, to give further evidence that OIF heroes were not being overlooked, I discovered that now as in previous wars, additional awards had been recommended but their presentation was being held up by the approval process. Which in itself, points to Mr. Kinney's second concern:


The data reflected in my first point seems to illustrate that traditionally there has been a long time in the vetting process for Medal of Honor nominations. Mr. Kinney called for "Posthumous Medals of Honor be awarded with 72 hours of a death in combat and within 30 days of the act to living members." While I concede that is true there is a long delay in approving Medals of Honor, I believe that lengthy vetting process is:

  • Necessary to protecting the integrity of the meaning of the Medal of Honor, and

  • That his delay is is not unique to the current action, but quite in line with precedent.

The Medal of Honor is so prestigious, not because of what it is, but because of what it represents. It stands for the ULTIMATE sacrifice, far above and beyond the call of duty. It is not awarded lightly. Of more than 30 million Americans who have served in uniform since the Medal of Honor was established during the Civil War, only 3,462 Medals of Honor have been awarded. (In a 1917 review of awards from the Civil War to that date, it was found that 911 Medals of Honor had been improperly issued, all but six of them for frivolous reasons. To maintain the sanctity of what the Medal meant, all 911 were revoked. The vetting process, though lengthy, is requisite to insure that the Medal of Honor will ALWAYS represent the ULTIMATE valor, and that it is never again frivolously or improperly conferred. 

The length of time spent approving OIF Medal of Honor nominations may seem lengthy, but it is not. While testimony before the Committee pointed to prompt battlefield presentations in World War II, these were the exception, and rare. The most promptly approved Medal of Honor of World War II was to Henry Red Erwin, who earned the Medal of Honor on April 12, 1945. His award was presented one week later. But this was a rare situation, spurred by both the incredible nature of Red Erwin's actions and the fact that he was not expected to live out the week.

In a sampling of 372 of the 464 Medals of Honor awarded in World War II, I found that only FOUR were awarded within 30 days of the action meriting the award. (WWII MOH figures used herein do NOT include the 33 belated awards presented after 1980.) Fifty-five Medals of Honor were presented within four months of the action. In fact, the average time from act to presentation for all 372 awards (again excluding the late upgrades) was more than ten months.

Korean War awards (EXCLUDING the 2005 belated award to Tibor Rubin) averaged 14.5 months from the date of action to the date of the award. During the Vietnam War, (EXCLUDING the SIX belated awards presented in the 1998, 2000 and 2002) the process averaged 25 months, a little over TWO YEARS, from the date of the award to presentation of the Medal of Honor.

Therefore, once again, it would appear that the process has not discriminated against a new generation of American heroes  Rather, award of the Medal of Honor in this new century is still undertaken with the same scrutiny as it was in the 1970s, the early 1950s, and in World War II. (As for World War I awards, only FIVE of that war's 119 Medals of Honor were awarded BEFORE the war ended on November 11, 1918. All other awards were post-war upgrades.)


Once again, this is a TRUE statement, which might in and of itself, lend credence to such articles as the one written for The Pilot by John Cappell, who noted: "Lesser awards for valor like the Silver Star or the Navy Cross often go to those whose actions seem markedly similar to those easily found supporting Medal of Honor awards."

First and foremost, let us not diminish the meaning of these "lesser awards". While only 245 of the 2.9 million members of the military who served in Vietnam earned Medals of Honor, these lesser awards were only slightly more common (1,058 DSCs, 490 Navy Crosses and 179 Air Force Crosses). These awards represent heroism and sacrifice that comes close to rising to the level of action for award of the Medal of Honor. (In some cases the act might in fact merit the MOH, but is not awarded for the lack of the requisite TWO eyewitnesses.) Thus the citation for so high a level of heroism might well be expected to read much like a citation for the Medal of Honor. The same could be said for the Silver Star, our nation's third-highest award for military valor.

Of the Medal of Honor, General George Patton said, "I'd sell my immortal soul for that medal." He never did receive it. But Patton also noted of the so-called "lesser-awards", "I'd rather be a lieutenant with the Distinguished Service Cross, that a general without one." Patton got BOTH, in fact, he got the DSC twice.

To date, TWO Air Force Crosses, FOUR Distinguished Service Crosses, and TWENTY Navy Crosses have been awarded for WOT heroism. For the first time in history Marine Corps Navy Cross recipients outnumber Army DSC recipients, and at a rate of 4-to-1. Again, reflective of the changing nature of warfare and the roles played by the troops on the ground.

Having read nearly every single one of the 20,000 citations for awards of these second-level military awards, I've been struck by one fact. Nearly every single DSC/NC citation reads like a Medal of Honor citation. Which raises the question posed above for veterans of all wars, are heroes who deserve the Medal of Honor being denied their rightful honor by presentation of lesser awards. There are two factors to consider here:

  1. Citations are a brief synopsis of the actions for which a medal is awarded. Few people other than the chain of command that reviews award recommendations sees anything more than this synopsis. Those that do see this additional material are usually part of the vetting process, during which the recommendations are investigated and witness statements are obtained and reviewed to determine what award is appropriate. Two men might have nearly identical citations, citing a heroic charge against a numerically superior enemy during which each knocks out the same number of enemy machine guns and even kills an equal number of enemy. Yet one man gets the Medal of Honor, the other a DSC or Silver Star.
         The difference is to be found in the operations reports, witness statements, and other background material. In one case the individual may have performed additional deeds before or after the one cited, but not actually referenced in the citation, that enhances his actions and calls for a higher award. Furthermore, in one case against an isolated enemy position the impact of the actions may have saved a squad, when a similar action may have been against the leading element of an enemy battalion and totally reversed the tide of an entire battle.
         The citation is meant to be brief--and therefore, is generally rather generic. Without the underlying evidence reviewed in the vetting process, comparing citations for various awards is a futile process that does not fully reflect the nature of the actions meriting the award. 

  2. Frequently, the so-called "lesser awards" are impacted--quickly approved and presented, and later are upgraded. Of the 159 awards of the Medal of Honor to members of the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, THIRTY men were initially awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. As these awards went through the same chain of command, someone above the Division level reviewed the above-mentioned background information and witness reports, and recommended upgrade from the awarded DSC to the Medal of Honor. In most of these cases the individual who had received the DSC was unaware that their award was under review until they were notified that they were to go to the White House to get the Medal of Honor. (In such cases, General Orders rescinding the DSC are usually issued, to be replaced by a General Order authorizing the Medal of Honor--the recipient is NOT a recipient of BOTH medals.)
         The layman, the average citizen, even the recipients of high awards in the current War on Terrorism, have no idea if or how many high awards in the current action may be under review for upgrade. No doubt some are being considered, along with the four or five additional Medal of Honor nominations still undergoing the vetting process. 

FINALLY, it has been pointed out that in the three actions since the end of the Vietnam War that merited the FOUR post-Vietnam awards of the Medal of Honor, not one living hero survived to wear the Medal of Honor. With only 111 living MOH recipients, it would be wonderful to see some new, young faces among the members of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. I have little doubt that with time and patience, there will be some, if even just a few. But if and when that happens, I hope and pray that those new inductees into our nation's most elite and exclusive group of National Heroes will be soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who got there by the same standards as those who preceded them, and not because our U.S. Military bowed to pressure from Congress, media, or the public to somehow circumvent the traditions and practices of the past to simply sate the appetite for new heroes.

While life is an ever-changing process, the Valor and devotion to duty of the men and women who serve our nation in uniform has not changed. The new generation that has answered the call of duty in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere around the globe are no less heroic than those of wars past. Each and every one of them deserves our respect, our thanks, and proper recognition for what they do. The nature of warfare has changed, and I applaud the Pentagon for proactively examining the process by which military awards are granted. I have no doubt our awards system will be the better for it.

At the same time, one of the greatest areas of change in recent years has been in Congress. Only a generation ago veteran status was almost requisite to a political future, and more than three-fourths of our public servants in Washington, D.C. had served in uniform. Today, fewer than twenty per cent of our Senators and Representatives have ever worn the uniform of our United States military, and only a fraction of those have served in combat. The vast majority of them could not distinguish between a Silver Star and a "Good Cookie", much less have an intimate knowledge as to what those awards meant or what they represented. It is my hope that Congress, having dutifully held its hearing and asking its questions last December, will now get out of the way and let the military establishment conduct its own study of the awards process, unhampered by a well-intentioned but ill-informed Congress.

C. Douglas Sterner



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