Delay in awarding Medals of Honor sparks frustration

December 10, 2006|By Kirsten Scharnberg | Kirsten Scharnberg,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO -- The men who were there that day say they could see the options flicker across Michael Monsoor's face: save himself or save the men he had long considered brothers.

He chose them.

In the span of just seconds, on a rooftop in the Iraqi city of Ramadi, Monsoor watched the enemy grenade bounce to the ground. The 25-year-old Navy SEAL assessed that it likely would kill all three of his nearby comrades, men with wives and small children. He screamed, "Grenade!" then hurled himself on top of the explosive and bore the brunt of its lethal blast.

"He could run and save himself or he could fall on it," said a weeping George Monsoor, the SEAL's father, who recently had one of the men his son saved over for an emotional Thanksgiving dinner. "He fell on it."

In the time since Monsoor's actions Sept. 29, many in the military community have linked the death of the young man and others like him to what they view as another tragedy associated with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: the Pentagon's delay in awarding the nation's highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor, to those most deserving of it. It has yet to be announced whether Monsoor, already decorated with a Silver Star and a Bronze Star from previous battles, will posthumously be awarded the medal.

The Medal of Honor issue, championed by a number of combat veterans from previous wars as well as recently retired military officers, has garnered enough debate and attention that the House Armed Services Committee held a hearing Wednesday to examine the way military awards are being handled by the Defense Department.

Full-scale review

The Pentagon has launched a full-scale, all-branch review of its award system. And those involved at the highest levels of the Medal of Honor award process are promising that "a number" of Medal of Honor nominations are nearing final analyses and likely will go soon to President Bush for review and approval.

"This war has yet to tell its story entirely," said Bill Carr, acting deputy undersecretary of defense for military personnel policy.

Still, statistics regarding the Medal of Honor illustrate the continuing debate:

In five years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, just two Medals of Honor have been granted.

Historically, no war lasting this long has produced fewer Medals of Honor.

Acts of bravery once considered clear-cut cases for the medal, such as intentionally absorbing the blast of a grenade, are going unawarded or delayed by years of investigation.

And compared to previous wars, when many Medal of Honor recipients survived their acts of valor, both medals awarded from the Iraq war came posthumously, contributing to what critics fear is an at-war generation devoid of acknowledged military heroes.

Since Congress created the award for valor during the Civil War, 3,461 Medals of Honor have been awarded to men (and one woman) whose names became synonymous with "hero."

Compared to wars past, two Medals of Honor from Iraq initially might seem low, but Pentagon officials are quick to offer explanations: Wars no longer are fought between armed formations along front lines, and there often is a greater distance between American troops and their enemies. Even more, they argue, wars have exponentially fewer troops on the ground; World War II, for example, had millions of Americans in combat; the U.S. force in Iraq numbers about 139,000.

"Those are all influencing factors that can increase the position one is placed in to demonstrate heroism," Carr said.

Veteran seeks probe

Joseph Kinney, a Vietnam veteran who has called for an investigation of the award process, says it is unthinkable that no Medals of Honor have been awarded for the door-to-door combat in such places as Fallujah, Najaf and Ramadi.

"We're talking guys who have taken grenades or single-handedly repelled dozens of enemy fighters in face-to-face combat," Kinney said.

He has crunched the numbers. In Vietnam, 1 out of about every 324 troops killed in action was later awarded the medal; the Medal of Honor ratio for Iraq stands at about 1 in every 1,400 killed.

But what most galls some people is the time it has taken for the newest Medal of Honor recipients to be recognized. Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul Smith, 33, the first to receive the medal for fighting in Iraq, was not given his award until two years after his death. The medal for Cpl. Jason Dunham, a 22-year-old Marine who threw himself atop a grenade to save other men nearby, was announced three weeks ago on the Marine Corps' 231st birthday - more than 2 1/2 years after his death.

Pentagon resistance

Kinney, who was scheduled to be the first witness before the House Armed Services Committee, plans to recommend that posthumous Medals of Honor be granted within 72 hours of a death received in combat and Medals of Honor to living members of the military be granted within 30 days of the heroic act.

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