Lawmakers should leave the Medal of Honor alone

Posted: Friday, October 02, 2009

O n Sept. 17 President Obama presented the Medal of Honor to the parents of Army Staff Sgt. Jared Monti for "conspicuous gallantry." Monti, 30, was serving with the 10th Mountain Division when he was killed June 21, 2006, in a battle at Gowardesh, Afghanistan.

This was the sixth occasion since Sept. 11, 2001, that the nation's highest military award has been bestowed. Unfortunately, some are pushing for this decoration to be awarded more generously because they believe the number of recipients is too low.

More than a dozen groups and lawmakers are lobbying the Defense Department to award this honor more frequently - in effect, to lower its standards - and to upgrade to the Medal of Honor other decorations that soldiers have received. In debate over the National Defense Authorization Act for 2010, the Pentagon was criticized for setting decoration standards too high. 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 Defense Secretary Robert Gates to report back to the House and Senate Armed Services Committees next March.

The Defense Department's definition of "hero" has stood the test of time. And the standards for this nation's highest military award are appropriately strict.

The Medal of Honor is the least-understood U.S. military decoration. In 1916, a committee under the leadership of a medal recipient, Gen. Nelson Miles, reviewed each instance of award, set up investigative standards and rules, and strengthened the requirements (including specifying that recipients must be actively enrolled in U.S. armed forces at the time of their act of bravery). The "Purge of 1917" stripped 911 Medals of Honor from those not deemed worthy of having received them; the most well known of these are 864 awarded during the Civil War to the soldiers of the 27th Maine, who received the medal simply for reenlisting. Sadly, amid political pressure, some of the medals taken away were later returned.

The Medal of Honor is presented ceremoniously by the president of the United States in the name of Congress, but the Defense Department chooses the candidates. The department has historically based its decisions on soldiers' actions and merit. Most of those calling for the medal to be bestowed more frequently couldn't name any of the 95 recipients who are still living or the remarkable actions that led to their awards.

The Medal of Honor is a combat decoration not limited to a past battle or present circumstances; it is also about how succeeding generations will view the individuals on whom it was bestowed and why. Most Medals of Honor have been posthumously awarded, and the citations justifying its presentation are Homeric stories of bravery that centuries from now are likely to 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 that the Medal of Honor is a warrior's award and that it is their decoration to present only to those whom they regard as fit to wear it. Politicians, pundits and civilian organizations - however well-meaning - should have little say in who receives it.

Nor is our Defense Department unique in bestowing its highest combat decoration sparingly. More than 50,000 British troops have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and 360 have been killed in combat. The British Secretary of State for Defence, however, 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 since Sept. 11, 2001.

Yet this honor is not about quotas or statistics; nor does the number of presentations reflect on the modern soldier's valiant service on the battlefield. The Bronze Star, the Silver Star and the Distinguished Service Cross are prestigious decorations of valor, not to be taken lightly or dismissed.

The strict standards for the Medal of Honor are meant to keep it credible. It is wrong to pressure the Defense Department to lower its standards of individual courage, nobility and self-sacrifice on a battlefield. The department should make its own decisions on this award so Americans will know that when it lauds someone as a "hero," we should all take notice.

• Hooper is an author and journalist from Knoxville, Tenn., who has reported on military affairs and assembled educational programs on the Medal of Honor.

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