On Tuesday, President Obama awarded 24 soldiers with the Medal of Honour who had been overlooked, or rather, discriminated against, for heroic actions they took in wars going back to Vietnam, Korea, and World War II.
That these men were not given the honour they deserved when they should have is a terrible injustice.
But a new form of discrimination in awarding medals appears to be forming.
The Global War on Terror encompassing both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is the longest engagement in our nation’s history, and yet it has yielded the lowest number of Medal of Honour awards of all wars. And while racial discrimination is being fixed when it comes to awarding medals, “discrimination by rank” seems to have taken its place, according to a number of military veterans I spoke with.
“Awards are watered down and often handed out based on rank,” said Matthew Bell, a former Marine staff sergeant who served in Iraq. Officers and senior enlisted tend to get higher awards, he said, while a “junior Marine who exposes himself to incoming fire while killing 20 insurgents with an E-tool gets a Certificate of Commendation.”
While an exaggeration, this is sadly not far from what others told me.
“One of my fellow team leaders shot and killed the driver of a dump truck full of explosives driving into our patrol base, ultimately saving the lives of my entire platoon,” said Christopher Brown, a former Marine corporal who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. “The [suicide vehicle bomb] still detonated, but rather than detonating on impact with the house it came to a rolling stop in the driveway.”
The bomb wounded twenty but no Marines were killed. “The lance corporal who saved our lives received no award, while our Lieutenant who was calling in to higher on a disconnected radio handset received a Bronze Star.”
Now of course, the nature of warfare is certainly changing. There are less battlefield deaths, better gear to protect soldiers, and improved tactics in place. But there definitely “is a military awards problem,” according to one Army captain I spoke with.
When asked if there were “quotas” in place for military awards — or caps for certain ranks to receive specific decorations — the captain couldn’t say.
“Quotas are highly illegal, and even harder to prove,” the captain told me. “You have to have an email from a commander stating he is using a quota system.”
“My unit(RCT-1 Security Platoon ’04) were/was all put up for [Navy Achievement Medals] for running 112 missions in a month,” said Joe Schacht, a Marine veteran of Iraq. “Not a big deal, but it was downgraded to a [Certificate of Commendation] because they ‘couldn’t justify giving 30 Marines in the same platoon a NAM.’ Our lieutenant and platoon sergeant, of course, got their Bronze Star.”
This uneven distribution of awards is a common complaint, as an article in Stars and Stripes from June 2000 shows:
A recent review by the Stars and Stripes of the way the Bronze Star was awarded to U.S. personnel involved in the airstrikes on Yugoslavia found that the Air Force awarded 185 of the medals, the vast majority going to officers and top commanders. Only 25 enlisted Air Force troops got the nod. Of all the medals awarded, only one in 10 actually was in the combat zone.
One lieutenant colonel received the medal, for example, “for responding to supply requests at a moment’s notice” at Aviano Air Base in Italy. Another senior officer got a Bronze Star for presenting his “bed-down briefing” to top brass, such as then-NATO commander Gen. Wesley K. Clark, on where troops and aircraft were being positioned at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Others got it for helping to plan strike missions.
And what of the Medal of Honour? The nation’s highest honour should be reserved for only the most incredible battlefield heroics, but the difference from previous wars is rather striking when looked at side-by-side with wars of the past decade.
Just look at this chart, which shows the number of Medal of Honours awarded (prior to the 24 Tuesday), via Leo Shane of Military Times:
Of the 249 awarded for action in Vietnam, three were earned for actions in a city known as Huế. The besieged city saw some of the bloodiest and worst fighting of the war, and while there are distinctions, there was a similar battle during the Iraq War in Fallujah.
The difference: Not a single Medal of Honour to emerge from the 2004 battle there.
It’s certainly not due to lack of heroics. One of the most famous and controversial cases is that of Sgt. Rafael Peralta, who was submitted for the Medal of Honour after jumping on a grenade inside a house, saving the lives of four Marines. He was instead awarded the Navy Cross.
And then there is the less-known case of Lance Cpl. Christopher Adlesberger, who upon entering an insurgent-infested house as a private first class, pushed forward despite the death of his point man and the wounding of two others.
Adlesberger, wounded in the face by grenade fragments, then single handedly cleared a stairway and a rooftop, throwing grenades and shooting at insurgents while under blistering fire. “Adlesberger was killing insurgents so they couldn’t make it up the roof,” said platoon corpsman Alonso Rogero, in his written statement of events. “The insurgents tried to run up the ladder well, but PFC Adlesberger kept shooting them and throwing grenades on top of them.”
He died a month after his heroics in that Fallujah house, but Adlesberger was posthumously recommended for the Medal of Honour. The award recommendation from 3rd Battalion 5th Marines originated with 1st Lt. Dong Yi and moved up the chain of command, with concurrence from Adlesberger’s battalion commander, regimental commander, and division commander.
Two years later, when his recommendation reached the MEF Commander, Lt. Gen. John Sattler, it was downgraded to the Navy Cross, the nation’s second highest award. The document examined by Business Insider did not include any comments or reasoning as to why.
(Sattler did not respond to multiple emails from Business Insider).
“The simple fact is, nobody even knew how to write up any of that stuff, and it never crossed anybody’s mind,” Sgt. Maj. Justin LeHew told Marine Corps Times Dan Lamothe last November. ” … If I’m writing, and I look back at what I wrote in my hip-pocket notebook in the middle of combat on some of these guys, my guys are wearing [Navy and Marine Corps Commendation medals with “V”] for what some guys got Silver Stars for that were out there.”
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