by Ed Hooper on Sep 3, 2009
On Sept. 17, 2009, President Obama will present the Medal of Honor to the parents of Army Staff Sgt. Jared C. Monti for “conspicuous gallantry.” Monti, 30, was serving with the 10th Mountain Division when he was killed in a battle at Gowardesh, Afghanistan.
This will be the sixth occasion since Sept. 11, 2001, that the nation’s highest award has been presented. Some believe the number is too low. In the National Defense Authorization Act for 2010, the Department of Defense came under fire for setting decoration standards too high. Still, regardless of political pressure and changing definitions in popular media, the department has held fast to its own definition of the word “hero,” which has stood the test of time.
More than a dozen groups at present — disregarding the decoration’s stated rules, regulations and protocols — are lobbying the department to upgrade other decorations that soldiers have received in action to the Medal of Honor. They argue that there aren’t enough living recipients. The “low numbers” led Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.)to insert a conference report in the authorization act “to review the current trends in awarding the Medal of Honor to identify whether there is an inadvertent subjective bias amongst commanders that has contributed to the low numbers of awards of the Medal of Honor.” It directs Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to report back to the House and Senate Armed Services Committees next March.
The standards for this nation’s highest award are intended to be strict. In 1916, a committee under the leadership of a medal recipient, Gen. Nelson Miles, reviewed each case to that date, set up investigative standards and rules and strengthened the requirements. The “Purge of 1917″ stripped away 911 Medals of Honor from those not deemed worthy of having received them, including 864 awarded during the Civil War to the soldiers of the 27th Maine, who received the medal simply for re-enlisting. Some medals taken away were later returned under political pressure.
Sadly, the Medal of Honor is the least understood U.S. military decoration. While it is presented ceremoniously by the President of the United States in the name of Congress, the candidates are chosen exclusively by the Department of Defense. Most people now calling for the medal to be pinned on soldiers can’t tell you the names of any of the 96 recipients now living or the actions that led to their awards. These remarkable stories remain largely unknown among Americans, and are not recorded in school or college history textbooks.
The Department of Defense is historically stingy with this award for justifiable reasons. The Medal of Honor is a combat decoration and is not only about the present or the past; it is also about the future and how succeeding generations will look back upon the individuals on whom it was bestowed and the reasons why.
The United States is not alone in keeping the integrity of its highest combat decoration intact. More than 50,000 British troops have served on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan and 360 have been killed in combat. The Secretary of State for Defence in the United Kingdom has awarded only two of that nation’s highest decoration, the Victoria Cross, for actions under fire. The United States has fielded three times as many troops and awarded three times the number of our highest decoration.
Most Medals of Honor have been posthumously awarded, and the citations justifying its presentation are Homeric stories of bravery that can be read centuries from now by students of our nation’s past and, for the most part, will stand unrivaled beside the stories of great warriors and citizen-soldiers throughout history. The uniformed men and women of the U.S. Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines and Navy will tell you the Medal of Honor is a warrior’s award and that it is their decoration to present only to those whom they see as fit to wear it. Politicians, civilian pundits and outside organizations — regardless of how well-meaning — should have little say or influence in who receives it.
The Medal of Honor isn’t about quotas based on statistics, nor does the alleged lack of presentations today speak badly of the modern soldier’s valiant service on the battlefield. Medals such as the Bronze Star, Silver Star and Distinguished Service Cross are prestigious decorations of valor, not to be taken lightly or dismissed.
But the strict rules and standards set for the Medal of Honor are in place to keep it credible. It is wrong to attempt to pressure the Department of Defense to lower its standards of individual courage, human nobility and self-sacrifice performed on a battlefield to appease outside pressure. The department has never fallen short of the mark and should be left to make the call on who receives the Medal of Honor so we, as Americans, can rest assured there is still one corner in this nation where we may hear the word “hero” spoken and take notice.
Ed Hooper is an author and journalist from Knoxville, Tenn., and a writer for the History News Service, who specializes in military affairs and historical preservation.