This weekend’s New York Times Sunday Magazine contains a fascinating article that hits quite close to home for me. Centered around the story of a 25-year-old Marine who — despite horrific wounds — had the presence of mind and courage to scoop a live grenade under his body to save the lives of his comrades, the article asks a simple question: Why is the military awarding so few medals of honor? Are we less courageous now? Or is the military stifling valor awards in a labyrinthine bureaucracy dominated by rear echelon second-guessers? The numbers are stunning:
Despite its symbolic importance and educational role in military culture, the Medal of Honor has been awarded only six times for service in Iraq or Afghanistan. By contrast, 464 Medals of Honor were awarded for service during World War II, 133 during the Korean War and 246 during the Vietnam War. “From World War I through Vietnam,” The Army Times claimed in April 2009, “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.”
To be clear, this article hits home for me not because I did anything meriting a valor award in Iraq (I did not), but because I know and served with men who did deserve valor awards but either (i) did not receive them; or (ii) saw the award requests downgraded or denied several steps up the bureaucratic chain. In some cases, we knew conduct would never be considered for more than a Silver Star, so we didn’t make the request.
The men I served with were courageous at a level that civilians simply cannot comprehend. Let me give just one example. In January 2008, a small team of American soldiers was ambushed after an al-Qaeda terrorist faked a surrender (this was common practice). The team leader and another officer were mortally wounded the instant the terrorists opened fire. The senior noncommissioned officer was pinned down and unable to take effective control of the formation; other officers were worked desperately to retrieve their fallen comrades. A Sergeant First Class took immediate control of the situation, personally returning fire and killing the majority of the attackers, directing the team’s defense, and coordinating the recovery under fire of his stricken team members. He shepherded the formation out of the kill zone and coordinated the medical evacuation.
All in a day’s work, you say? How about this additional fact: He did all of this after being shot in the neck in the opening moments of the ambush. He killed the enemy, protected his comrades, and led them to safety while bleeding profusely — collapsing only after help arrived. I’m not sure about you, but I can’t even imagine what I’d do in a similar circumstance.
This courageous soldier received a Silver Star — our third-highest award for valor. It’s a medal he’ll wear proudly for the rest of his life, and he never asked for more. But did he deserve more?
To be clear, our guys aren’t out there begging for medals, but these awards are a critical aspect of the ongoing story of our military and the valor of our soldiers. How can the public recognize the heroes in our midst if they will never know who they are? If their courage goes unrecognized or is unfairly minimized?