Defense Media Network

Service Members Say the Medal of Honor Is Too Hard to Get

Throughout the U.S. armed forces today, many feel that too few service members are receiving the nation’s top award for valor, the Medal of Honor.

The Medal of Honor, in past wars a symbol of the selflessness and valor of American service members, has been mostly missing from America’s twenty-first century conflicts. Only ten Medals of Honor have been awarded for action in recent conflicts – six for Afghanistan and four for Iraq. The nation awarded 464 Medals of Honor for actions in World War II, 135 for the Korean War and 246 for Vietnam. On Oct. 7, 2011, the war in Afghanistan will enter its eleventh year, making Afghanistan the United States’ longest war if the length of U.S. involvement in Vietnam is measured from Aug. 7, 1964 to January 1973.

Military officers, historians and observers cite several reasons for the small total today. Although large numbers of troops are committed overseas (about 180,000 in both Afghanistan and Iraq), the number who fight in close-quarters combat is comparatively small and consists mostly of special operations forces. In Iraq, roadside bombs, also called improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are responsible for about 60 percent of U.S. casualties. “You can’t distinguish yourself by fighting back against an IED,” says retired Army Col. Fred L. Borch, an authority on awards and decorations.

But even allowing for today’s brand of warfare being different, service members believe that extraordinary acts of valor are taking place that warrant the top award and aren’t getting it. The main reason, they say, is that the process has become complex and intimidating. Many recommendations never get made because it’s simply too hard.

“Say you’re a commander in the field,” said a senior officer in a special operations unit. “Your captain comes running up to you and says, ‘I’ve got this kid who just displayed the most extraordinary bravery I’ve ever heard of.’ The captain hasn’t looked up the regulations yet but he’s got his award-writing pen out, ready to go. That’s when you have to tell him the facts of life.”


‘Not Worth It’

“You’re going to say to that captain, ‘Look. You want your guy to get recognition? A Silver Star is a serious award and it can be approved right here in the AOR [area of responsibility]. But if you want a service cross award or a Medal of Honor, it has to go to Washington. And it can take forever.’ Nine times out of ten, your captain is going to shrug and say, ‘Oh, hell. We’ll just put him in for the Silver. It’s just not worth it.'”

In 2006, when George W. Bush was president and only one Medal of Honor had been awarded in this century, Joseph A. Kinney wrote in the New York Times: “For reasons I can’t fathom, the Pentagon top brass don’t feel that our heroes in Iraq and Afghanistan are especially meritorious.” Kinney also wrote: “If President Bush awarded the medals at roughly the same rate [as in Vietnam] more than two dozen would have been bestowed by now.” Five years later, twice as much time having elapsed, the total has gone from one to ten.

Several writers cite Marine 1st Lt. Brian Chontosh as a hero who deserves higher recognition. As a platoon commander on March 25, 2003, during the invasion of Iraq, Chontosh became caught in the kill zone of an ambush. Without hesitation, he directed his Humvee directly at an Iraqi machine gun position, then dismounted and attacked the enemy trench, emptying his M16A2 rifle and 9mm pistol of ammunition, then twice picking up discarded enemy AK-47s to continue his attack. He then grabbed up an enemy rocket-propelled grenade launcher to finish his counter-assault. He single-handedly killed 20 Iraqis and wounded several while clearing 200 meters of trench line. Chontosh, who is now a major, received the Navy Cross, but has become a folk hero in the Marine Corps, and many Marines believe that he should receive the Medal of Honor.

Other Americans in uniform have excelled on the battlefield and may deserve higher recognition. Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, the sole survivor of a June 28, 2005 battle in Afghanistan that produced the highest award for Lt. Michael P. Murphy, believes every member of his four-man team should have received greater recognition. After cold-shouldering Army Capt. Will Swenson, a participant in a Sept. 8, 2009 firefight that secured the top award for Marine Corps Cpl. Dakota Meyer, the Army has now reversed itself and is considering Swenson for the Medal of Honor.


Cumbersome Process

By law, any person can nominate someone for the Medal of Honor. But much more is required than just writing a paragraph or two. The rules are spelled out in Department of Defense Awards Manual 1338.43, and they impose a colossal burden on the person making the nomination.

“At a minimum,” the manual dictates, a recommendation for the top valor award must be prepared in two copies and be “housed in a three-ring binder of appropriate size with an organized table of contents.” It must contain “forms, narratives, witness statements, graphs, diagrams and pictures” that are “clearly legible and visible.”  The justification for the award “must be specific, factual, and provide concrete examples of exactly what the person did, how well he or she did it, what the impact of benefits were, and how he or she significantly exceeded expected duty performance.”

“The process is unbelievably complex, if not daunting,” says Borch. “The intent is to ensure that only the most deserving personnel are awarded the Medal of Honor, but the unintended consequence of it is that it takes a long time to get a nomination for the Medal of Honor to the president for his approval. For example, when a soldier is nominated for the MOH, there must be sworn statements, maps, diagrams and much detail attached to the recommendation for the award. All this takes a lot of time and a lot of effort and requires someone who can write well and express themselves clearly.”

Borch said it routinely takes two years or more for a Medal of Honor recommendation to be processed. The requirements for submitting a recommendation can be viewed at this site:

Some Americans, including some veterans’ groups, have urged Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to launch a review of the Pentagon’s awards process to bring it in line with previous wars. It appears to be time for Panetta to do exactly that.


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-12337">

    That’s why it is the highest honor for a warrior to get., if it was easy to get then it would not be such an honor!!

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-12437">

    Service members need to suck it up ad lose their sense of entitlement. Not everybody gets a trophy at the end in real life, and ot everyone gets the same reward.

    This is the silliest thing I’ve read all week.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-12439">
    Carl Jerome Rodriguez, SR

    Are you kidding me? Let me quote jdbeatty: “This is the silliest thing I’ve read all week.” God Bless America! (USAF, CMSgt, Ret.)

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-12446">

    Really, if the person is deserving of it then do so. I know my uncle was, below reads his citation. He gave the ultimate gift to his country and men, and his family has paid the price.

    Vietnam War 1965-1973
    Medal of Honor Recipient


    Karl Gorman Taylor, Sr., who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism in Vietnam in December 1968,was born 14 July 1939, in Laurel, Maryland. He graduated from Arundel Junior High School in 1953, then attended Arundel Senior High School for three years until 1956. After leaving high school, he was employed by a construction company as a Tournapull-Scraper Operator. In 1961, he received a high school equivalency diploma from the Armed Forces Institute in Madison, Wisconsin.

    He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps along with his brother, Walter William Taylor, at the Recruiting Station, Baltimore, Maryland, on 15 January 1959. Upon completion of recruit training with the 3d Recruit Training Battalion, Recruit Training Regiment, Parris Island, South Carolina, he went on to infantry combat training with the 1st Infantry Training Regiment, Marine Corps Base, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. After completing infantry training in July 1959, he was assigned duty as a rifleman, section leader, and a platoon guide, successively, with Company A, 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, 2d Marine Division, Fleet Marine Force, Camp Lejeune.

    From January until February 1962, he attended the Drill Instructor School at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina, then served as Drill Instructor of the 2d Recruit Training Battalion, Recruit Training Regiment, Recruit Depot, Parris Island, until January 1963.

    He was promoted to private first class, 1 July 1959; to lance corporal, 1 March 1960, and to corporal, 24 October 1960.

    After this enlistment tour was over, Cpl Taylor returned to inactive duty for three months and was with the 4th Marine Corps Reserve and Recruitment District at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. On 26 March 1963, he returned to active duty at Quantico, Virginia, and served as Assistant Police Sergeant and, later, Police Sergeant, Guard Company, Service Battalion, Marine Corps Schools. He was promoted to sergeant on 1 December 1963.

    Transferred to the 3d Marine Division, in August 1964, Sgt Taylor saw a one year tour of duty as rocket section leader and platoon guide, with Company G, 2d Battalion, 3d Marine Regiment. Reassigned to Sub Unit #2, Headquarters Company, Headquarters and Service Battalion, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, in August 1965, he served as Instructor, NCO Leadership School until the following November.

    Upon his return to the United States in January 1966, Sgt Taylor returned to the Marine Corps Schools, Quantico, for duty as Candidate Company Platoon Sergeant and Platoon Sergeant of Company A, Officer Candidate School. He was promoted to staff sergeant on 1 September 1966.

    In February 1968, he returned to the Far East and the 3d Marine Division, this time for duty as platoon Sergeant and Company Gunnery Sergeant of Company I, 3d Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment. While participating in Operation Meade River on 8 December 1968, he was mortally wounded.

    A complete list of his medals and decorations include: the Medal of Honor, the Purple Heart, the Presidential Unit Citation with one bronze star, the Good Conduct Medal with two bronze stars, the National Defense Service Medal, the Vietnamese Service Medal with three bronze stars, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Palm, the Military Merit Medal, the Gallantry Cross with Palm, and the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal.

    ation. He gave the ultimate gift for our country and his men.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-12505">

    jdbeatty: Look at the numbers again.

    We’ve been at war for a decade and there have been less than a dozen Medals of Honor awarded. Compare with Vietnam, Korea, and World War II.

    In my opinion there are warriors out there who ARE entitled to the Medal of Honor. It’s not about a sense of entitlement. It’s about entitlement.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-12506">

    Kelleys25: Agreed it shouldn’t be easy to get. But when the awards are quite literally in the hundreds for previous wars and when we’ve been at war for a decade and the current Medal of Honor count is below a dozen, doesn’t it seem like the bar might have been raised a little too high?

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-34441">
    Simon Bramley

    It shouldn’t be easy to get the Medal of Honour. It shouldn’t be easy to get any medal.
    I would like to make 2 points.
    1. It has been said that it is too hard to get the Medal of Honour. I agree with that. If you look at the statistics. Half of those that have received the Medal of Honour have died as a result of the action. This at a time when out battlefield medical treatment is of a calibre never seen before. This compares unfavourably to previous conflicts.
    2. All medals should have the same amount of proof for the initial recommendation and it shouldn’t be decided at regimental level not to do but someone in for a Medal of Honour as it is too much work.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-34518">

    No, it shouldn’t be easy to earn the Medal of Honor.

    But in my opinion the standard for receiving it shouldn’t drift into Victoria Cross territory, either, where it is rare for there to be a living recipient. To some extent, I think this is already being corrected, but as Robert F. Dorr points out, the number of Medals of Honor given out after more than a decade of war is much lower than in previous conflicts.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-42373">

    What is the origin, or who is the owner, of the photo of the Medal of Honor at the top of this site?

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-42398">

    That is a U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Brandan W. Schulze The credit would usually appear in the caption, but since there was no caption for the photo it was left out.