Nature of war affects medal count

By Tom Philpott: Military Update

The changed nature of war — not command indifference or bureaucratic inertia as some critics allege — is likely the reason why only two Medals of Honor have been awarded to U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, a senior Marine Corps officer told lawmakers last Wednesday.

With remotely detonated bombs the enemy’s weapon of choice, opportunities for U.S. service members to earn awards for heroism have fallen compared to past wars, explained Brig. Gen Richard P. Mills, director of the personnel management division at Marine Corps headquarters.

Also impacting the number of valor awards, Mills suggested, is reliance by U.S. forces on their own stand-off weapons of smart bombs and missiles to destroy the enemy with less risk of American casualties.

“That improves the force protection and safety of our troops during the attacking process,” Mills said. “But it limits the opportunities to close with and engage the enemy face to face (and) perhaps limits the opportunity for individual recognition and awards.”

Mills spoke before the House armed services personnel subcommittee, along with the personnel chiefs of Army, Navy and Air Force, to answer complaints that the services are too rigid in awarding the nation’s highest valor award, the Medal of Honor, and are perhaps inconsistent in recognizing extraordinary acts of bravery.

The charges, strongly denied by the personnel chiefs, were leveled by a pair of combat veterans from past wars who now write their own columns. They have urged more and higher awards for wartime heroes and criticize the speed of current service award processes.

Rep. John McHugh, R-N.Y., subcommittee chairman, acknowledged that the Department of Defense began its own comprehensive review of military awards in September with a report due next June. Still, McHugh called this unusual end-of-session hearing to raise with the service personnel chiefs “issues and concerns … regarding valor awards.”

On the first panel was Joseph A. Kinney, a former Marine badly wounded in Vietnam, who while researching a book on the making of U.S. war heroes, came to see a disparity in number of valor awards going to veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Kinney said 240 members were awarded the Medal of Honor for actions in Vietnam, 179 of them posthumously. That represented one for every 324 Americans killed in that war.

Through Nov. 30, he said, 3,231 U.S. service members had died in Iraq and Afghanistan but only two were awarded Medals of Honor, Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith and Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham.

“This equates to one posthumous Medal of Honor for each 1,616 dead. A member of the military killed in Vietnam was five times more likely to receive a Medal of Honor than one in the war on terror,” Kinney said.

Kinney also blasted the speed with which valor medals are awarded. During the battle for Iwo Jima in World War II, 22 Marines and five sailors were awarded the Medal of Honor, he said, “most within a month.”

By contrast, Smith’s family waited two years to receive his Medal of Honor and the Marine Corps took almost 2 1/2 years to approve Dunham’s medal. Kinney said 30 to 90 days would have been more appropriate and would have better supported the war effort by raising the public profile of the terror war’s most esteemed heroes, Kinney said. He suggested that nothing useful is learned about a hero’s actions after the first week of interviewing witnesses and taking statements. The process only gets bogged down in levels of command and bureaucracy, he suggested.

“Is there something in our culture that paralyzes recognizing our greatest warriors? Are we afraid to honor the best among us?” he asked.

One Marine who should have received the Medal of Honor in 2003, Kinney said, is Capt. Brian R. Chontosh for his actions during the initial invasion of Iraq. While attacking an entrenched enemy position, Chontosh alone killed more than 20 enemy soldiers. He was awarded the Navy Cross.

Also testifying was Gerald Jonas, a Marine from the Korean War, who writes for small Pennsylvania newspapers. His beef with Medal of Honor awards is inconsistency in decisions made. He cited incidents of past wars only to make that point. In March of 1970, he said, two Marines in the same regiment on the same day fell on grenades to save the lives of fellow Marines. Both were badly injured. One was awarded the Medal of Honor. The other, Lance Cpl. Richard Gresko, was nominated for that highest award but received the Navy Cross instead. Gresko attended the hearing and, at the urging of lawmakers, stood to be recognized and applauded.

The personnel chiefs, in a second panel of witnesses, vehemently defended service criteria and processes for making awards. All of them said their services were striving to speed up the process. But Mills said accuracy would not be sacrificed to speed, especially with the Medal of Honor.

Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at:
milupdate@aol.com