Medal of Honor hurdles — and benefits

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Last week was an extraordinary one for the Medal of Honor, which the nation bestowed on two Army staff sergeants serving in Afghanistan. Last Thursday, the White House awarded the medal to Robert Miller, 24, who died in January 2008 while saving the lives of U.S. and Afghan troops during a nighttime firefight in Konar Province near the Pakistan border. The next day, the White House announced that Salvatore Giunta, 25, would be the first living recipient of the nation’s highest decoration for battlefield bravery since Vietnam. He was cited for trying to save comrades caught in an ambush in Korengal Valley – terrain since relinquished by the U.S. and its allies – in October 2007.

So just what does it take to win the Medal of Honor, generally awarded by the President on behalf of Congress, which is why it is sometimes called the Congressional Medal of Honor? By law, it is awarded to someone who has “distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.” (One woman has earned the distinction: Mary Walker for her medical work during the Civil War.) There are lesser awards for bravery, but the Medal of Honor is reserved only for the most valorous actions. Nearly 1 million medals have been awarded to troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, but most are given wholesale to entire units at the end of their tours, and aren’t so much for courage as for persistence; there have been only eight Medals of Honor won since 9/11. And do recipients get anything other than the distinctive light-blue-beribboned medal?

Winning the Medal of Honor can be a lengthy process. Let’s look at the Army’s, which accounts for more than 2,400 of the 3,400 Medals of Honor awarded since 1861 (it’s not awarded, but earned, those closest to it say). It begins with battlefield accounts – there must be thousands of unawarded Medals of Honor lacking witnesses – that then move up the chain of command. While the circumstances in each case can generate a slightly different process, this is what generally happens next:

Assuming each commander approves, a package of documents detailing why the award is warranted goes to the Army’s Decorations Board. If it approves, the package ascends to the four-star Army chief of staff, whose staff scrubs the documentation used to warrant the award. Any Medal of Honor given under false pretenses would leave an eternal stain on all in the chain of command approving it, if discovered (although as we saw in the faulty accounting of Pat Tillman’s 2004 Silver Star, it can happen).

Following the four-star approval, the recommendation for the Medal of Honor goes to the civilian Army secretary (at which point the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the relevant war-time commander are asked for their endorsements), then the civilian defense secretary, and from there – assuming everyone below has approved it – across the Potomac River for a final vetting by the White House. Pentagon officials say civilians are generally reluctant to overturn recommendations for military valor they receive from the uniformed services.

What do Medal of Honor recipients get in recognition of their bravery? Among other things:

— A monthly $1,000 pension from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

— A 10 percent increase in retired pay (assuming they serve 20 years).

— A special Medal of Honor travel and identification card that lets them fly for free on military aircraft.

— They can wear their uniforms whenever and wherever they want, unlike other military personnel or retirees.

— They and their dependents can buy lower-cost merchandise at military commissaries and exchanges, and play for free at military recreation sites, for the rest of their lives.

— Their children can attend U.S. military academies if they qualify.

— They can attend all Presidential inaugurations.

— Other members of the military are encouraged to salute Medal of Honor recipients, regardless of rank.

— In one of the few benefits shared by those who earned the award either dead or alive, each gets a special headstone, engraved with the medal, for his final resting place.