In Washington, a rising tide of opinion is calling on the White House and the Pentagon to make the Medal of Honor, America’s top award for valor, more accessible to troops caught up in today’s overseas battles.
On October 4, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif) sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta urging a the Pentagon to take a fresh look at existing military awards to determine whether some should be upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
The same week, the trade journal Air Force Timespublished a cover story about the recipient of one recent award with the headline, “Where the Hell is his MOH?” Hunter and the journal both reflect a view held by American troops and many in the general public – and first reported here on Defense Media Network – that in today’s American conflicts the Medal of Honor is simply too hard to get.
Hunter’s letter to Panetta cites as examples four recent combat actions that appear to meet the standard for the highest valor medal – “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.” According to Hunter, these American service members should be reconsidered for the nation’s highest valor decoration.
- Air Force Staff Sgt. Robert Gutierrez, who in 2009 engaged in a gun battle with Taliban fighters less than 30 feet away, suffering a gunshot wound that collapsed his lung and caused him to lose nearly half the blood in his body. Despite severe wounds, Gutierrez called in air strikes and directed a strafing run to within 10 feet of his position. After calling for a rescue helicopter, Gutierrez hiked a mile to the pickup point. Gutierrez, who has been selected for promotion to technical sergeant, will receive the Air Force Cross in a ceremony later this month.
- Army Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, who rescued six fellow soldiers from a burning Bradley fighting vehicle in October 2007 while soaked with fuel and covered in flames. Cashe died later from his wounds and posthumously received the Silver Star.
- Marine Corps 1st Lt. Brian Chontosh, who directed his driver to ram their Humvee into an Iraqi machine gun position, and then jumped out and engaged the enemy with his M16 rifle and M9 pistol. When his ammunition was exhausted, he grabbed discarded enemy AK-47s and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and singlehandedly killed some 20 fighters along an enemy trench. Chontosh, who is now a major, was awarded the Navy Cross.
- Marine Corps Sgt. Rafael Peralta, who, after being severely wounded, died after pulling a grenade under his body and smothering the blast to protect his fellow Marines. Peralta was recommended for the Medal of Honor, but after a scientific examination failed to confirm eyewitness accounts, he was awarded the Navy Cross.
Hunter’s letter makes the point that other service members, as well, may deserve a review to see whether the highest award should be given.
“I am confident there are even more instances of awards that are consistent with the history and tradition of the Medal of Honor and stand a good chance of being upgraded through a formal review process,” Hunter wrote.
C. Douglas Sterner, curator of the Military Times Hall of Valor and an authority on awards and decorations, wrote a similar letter to John McHugh, arguing for the top award for Cashe. “[T]here is a systematic failure that may have resulted in heroic soldiers receiving so-called ‘lesser awards’ that should have been properly recognized with the Medal of Honor,” Sterner wrote. He compared Cashe’s combat deed with a World War II action in nearly identical circumstances that did result in a Medal of Honor award.
“There is a groundswell among troops, military leaders and historians,” said Sterner in a telephone interview in reference to dissatisfaction with the few awards of the Medal of Honor in a decade of war. Sterner said that during the Vietnam war, 30 American soldiers were initially given the Distinguished Service Cross and, upon further review, had their awards upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
The Gutierrez case drew attention with a September 12 article and a September 15 commentary on Defense Media Network. Reader Don Hale, a Navy veteran active in Alabama veterans’ affairs, called the failure to award the Medal of Honor to Gutierrez a “travesty.”
Hunter believes Congress can help with enabling legislation if necessary. “I stand ready to provide any assistance you may need in order to proceed with a review,” Hunter wrote to Panetta. “There is no amount of time or difficulty that should prevent us from ensuring we properly recognize the heroism and sacrifice of this generation’s combat heroes.”
“I believe Congressman Hunter’s efforts will help substantially,” said Sterner.