Why So Few Medals of Honor?

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The White House has announced that President Obama will award Sergeant First Class Leroy Arthur Petry the Medal of Honor on July 12th. SFC Petry, a Ranger, lost a hand and received other significant wounds during a firefight in Afghanistan during which he tried to throw a hand grenade back at the enemy. (See my colleague Mark Thompson’s Battleland post here.)

The Medal of Honor is America’s highest award for valor. It is awarded for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life, above and beyond the call of duty.” In every possible way, it is distinctive among U.S. decorations. It is worn suspended from a blue neck ribbon (the color is called Bluebird 67117) rather than from a ribbon on the chest. Awardees receive a special pension from the VA of $1000 a month for life. Only 3,456 Medals of Honor have been awarded and only 84 recipients are alive today.

Sergeant Petry will become only the second living Medal of Honor recipient from the nearly ten years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Staff Sergeant Salvator Giunta was the first. Only nine Medals of Honor have been awarded since 2001.

So few? Well, let’s be clear, this is the highest recognition our nation can give for valor in combat. We shouldn’t just pass them out like candy. But still, nine in about ten years? It hasn’t always been so. From World War One through Vietnam the number of troops receiving the highest award for valor was about 2.3 to 2.9 in 100,000, according to the Army Times. Let’s be generous and round up to 3 per 100,000.

Nine awards for Iraq and Afghanistan: let’s round up to 10. So, 10 awards for 2,000,000 deployed service men and women comes to five in a million, 0.5 per hundred thousand. (I think it’s safe to round up here because we have heard of another living nominee: Marine Corporal Dakota Meyer.)

Why so stingy these days? This NY Times Magazine article goes a long way in explaining the process, which seems to have become intensely politicized. President Bush made no awards of the Medal to living recipients. President Obama has made one and now announced a second.

The case of Marine Sergeant Rafael Peralta highlighted in the NYT article is only one in which an award for valor was downgraded. Sgt. Peralta was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross. But the Army Times story claims the statistics for award of the Navy Cross, Distinguished Service Cross and Air Force Cross – the second highest awards for valor – are similar to those for the Medal of Honor: lower than previous wars.

It’s difficult to judge one wars’ heroes against those of another. Wars are just too dissimilar. But the award statistics remained more or less static for WWI, WWII, Korea and Vietnam. DoD should explain why it has been so tightfisted in these wars with our highest awards for valor.