WASHINGTON – Eight years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. About 4,000 members of the U.S. military killed in action. More than 34,000 wounded. Just six considered worthy of America’s highest military award for battlefield valor.
For some veterans and members of Congress, that last number doesn’t add up.
They question how so few Medals of Honor – all awarded posthumously – could be bestowed for wars of such magnitude and duration.
Pentagon officials say the nature of war has changed. Laser-guided missiles destroy enemy positions without putting soldiers in harm’s way. Insurgents deploy roadside bombs rather than engage in firefights.
Those explanations don’t tell the whole story, said Rep. Duncan Hunter, a first-term lawmaker who served combat tours as a Marine in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has sponsored legislation that directs the defense secretary to review current trends in awarding the Medal of Honor to determine what’s behind the low count.
The bill passed the House. If Senate negotiators go along, Secretary Robert Gates would have to report back by March 31.
“It seems like our collective standard for who gets the Medal of Honor has been raised,” said Hunter, R-Calif.
“The basis of warfare is you’ve got to take ground and then you’ve got to hold it. That takes people walking into houses, running up hills, killing bad guys and then staying there and rebuffing counterattacks,” he said. “That’s how warfare has always been no matter how many bombs you drop and how many Predators you have flying around.”
Military officials said they welcome the opportunity to conduct an in-depth review of the award process. Still, they dispute Hunter’s theory.
“Nominations go through no more or less scrutiny than in the past,” said Eileen Lainez, a Pentagon spokeswoman. “The standard for the Medal of Honor is high, as one would expect for our nation’s most prestigious military decoration.”
AMVETS, a veterans advocacy group, said it supports Hunter’s efforts. It held a banquet for Medal of Honor winners in January, and the number of medals was a topic of discussion, said Jay Agg, the group’s communications director.
To earn the Medal of Honor, at least two eyewitnesses have to view a deed so outstanding that it clearly distinguishes gallantry above and beyond the call of duty. No margin of doubt is allowed. Nominations make their way through channels until eventually they’re approved at the highest levels of the Pentagon and then by the president.