The Medal of Honor: 150 Years of Valor

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REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Marine Sgt. Meyer after receiving the Medal of Honor from Obama at the White House in Washington

In 1861, Iowa Senator James Grimes proposed a medal to honor the bravery of Navy personnel, which Abraham Lincoln signed into law 150 years ago today, Dec. 21, 1861. That following summer, Lincoln signed authorization for an Army medal to be awarded to those who “most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action and other soldier-like qualities.”

Over the next 150 years, as roughly 40 million men and women have served in uniform, fewer than 3,500 would be awarded the Medal of Honor. Over those 15 decades, the criteria for the medal would change drastically and its place in the grand scheme of American life would evolve. But the awarding of two Medals of Honor to two living recipients this year, along with efforts to award deserving service members who were overlooked because of race or religion, show that the nation’s highest decoration for heroism is as important today as it has ever been.

During the Civil War, when the Medal of Honor was the only award for bravery a soldier could receive, more than a thousand medals were bestowed for various heroic acts, occasionally to entire units. In 1897, Secretary of War Russell Alger set new standards for the Medal of Honor, requiring eyewitness testimony and official records as evidence of valorous acts. Shortly before the U.S. entered World War I, General Nelson Miles, a recipient of the medal from the Civil War, led an inquiry into the more than 2,600 Medals of Honor the Army had awarded to that date. The honor was withdrawn from 910 of those recipients. As the U.S. entered World War I, the Medal of Honor criteria became solidified for actions “beyond the call of duty,” and Congress approved the Distinguished Service Cross and the Navy Cross for acts of bravery not justifying the Medal of Honor.

During World War I, the country saw its first genuine celebrity Medal of Honor recipient in the form of Alvin York, a conscientious objector from rural Tennessee. “Sergeant York” as he became known (he was a corporal at the time of his famous engagement), took out 35 German machine guns near Chatel Chéhéry, France. When he ran out of ammunition and six German soldiers charged him, York killed them with his pistol. When the fighting was over, York and his seven surviving men captured 132 German soldiers and took them prisoner. After being awarded the Medal of Honor, York returned to the U.S. to great fanfare, was the subject of two books and Gary Cooper played him in the 1941 film “Sergeant York”.

Because of its size and scope, World War II saw the most Medals of Honor awarded after the Civil War, 464 in all. Many recipients, such as Jimmy Doolittle, Audie Murphy and John Basilone became household names, but others tend to come up when you speak to living recipients. Shorty after the war began, Jack Lucas lied about his age to enter the Marine Corps at age 14. During the Battle of Iwo Jima, just a few days after Lucas’s 17th birthday, he threw himself on a Japanese grenade and pulled second grenade underneath himself, saving three Marines. Lucas was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Harry Truman and underwent more than 20 surgeries, but until he died in 2008, more than 200 pieces of shrapnel remained inside of his body.

Two hundred and sixty six Medals of Honor during World War II were awarded posthumously; however, the Korean War had the highest percentage of posthumous awards–97 out of 135 Medals of Honor. The Vietnam War would see the medal awarded to soldiers and Marines who fought through horrific ambushes, medevac pilots who flew into enemy fire again and again and the only known instance where a Medal of Honor recipient was decorated for saving another recipient. In October 1972, Navy SEAL Michael Thornton saved his lieutenant, Thomas Norris, who had been shot in the head during an ambush. Norris, who just months before had led the daring rescue of two pilots shot down behind enemy lines, was recovering from his wounds when Thornton boosted him from the hospital against his doctor’s orders. Norris was on hand at the White House when Richard Nixon awarded Thornton the Medal of Honor. In 1975, when Norris’s feats became declassified, he too was nominated for the Medal of Honor, and Thornton was on hand to see his old lieutenant receive the award a year later.

It would not be until last year that the U.S. would see another living service member, Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, receive the decoration. During the Global War on Terror, four medals from Iraq and three from Afghanistan would be awarded posthumously. While dozens of Navy and Distinguished Service Crosses were awarded, some members of Congress, and some Medal oh Honor recipients, inquired whether the criteria were too strict in awarding the highest decoration. “After so many years and so many people being involved in combat, I found it almost impossible that everyone that received the medal got it for sacrificing their lives,” says Allen Lynch, who received the Medal of Honor for saving wounded soldiers under heavy enemy fire in Vietnam. “I’m very happy to see these new guys come in.”

For Jack Jacobs, who received the medal for saving the lives of thirteen soldiers after he was badly wounded in Vietnam, the awarding of the medal can sometimes be as arbitrary as combat itself. “Think about all of the people, millions of people who have fought in combat valiantly and nobody saw it, or people saw it and they themselves were killed,” Jacobs says. “That is why all recipients will tell you the same thing: we wear the medal, not for us, but for all those who can’t. It’s for all of those who served valiantly and were not recognized.”

Giunta displayed the modesty so characteristic of Medal of Honor recipients when he described the ambush for which he was decorated. “I did what I did because in the scheme of this whole painting of the picture of that ambush, that was just my brushstroke,” Giunta said. “It’s not above and beyond. That picture wouldn’t have been complete without that brushstroke, and it was my brushstroke to take. I didn’t take the biggest brushstroke, and it wasn’t the most important brushstroke, it was just one that completed the picture.” But like many others, Giunta, who lost one of his best friends in the ambush, is haunted by the loss of a dear friend. “You know your life is going to change,” Jacobs says of receiving the medal. “You’re going to carry the burden–it’s a pleasant and honorable burden–of the ghosts of all of those who didn’t survive.”

To honor the 150th anniversary of the Medal, Jacobs’ and Lynch’s stories, and that of the 85 living recipients, are chronicled in the new book, Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty. The recipients’ stories, along with many deeply personal feelings about being honored, help tell the collective history of the award and personify its importance. Political leaders have, in recent years, sought to honor worthy service members who were overlooked because of racial and religious biases. In 2000, 20 Distinguished Service Crosses were upgraded to Medals of Honor for the Japanese-American the 442nd Infantry Regiment. A recent provision called the William Shemin Jewish World War I Veterans Act, that is part of the defense-spending bill passed by Congress, calls for an investigation of Jewish-American veterans of World War I who were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. It is likely that Shemin, and perhaps several other Jewish-American veterans will be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

It is important to honor heroes even though they may be long gone. The story of the Medal of Honor is one of sacrifice and service that is woven into our fabric as a nation. “The 150th anniversary of the Medal of Honor is a good time to reflect on the service and sacrifice of everyone who came before us and the kids who are taking care of us now,” Jacobs says. For those few alive today who wear the medal, it is a singular honor, but one they feel represents those they served with, many of whom did not come home. “It’s not necessarily the holder, but what the medal symbolizes that’s important,” Lynch says. “I’m a holder of it. I hold it for a lot of people. In one sense, it’s easier to earn the medal than it is to wear it.”