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

Written by: Robert F. Dorr on September 26, 2011

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, 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.


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