Ranking heroism

Posted: Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Much has been made, and rightfully so, of President Obama's Medal of Honor presentation last month to Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, the first living recipient of the nation's highest military decoration since the Vietnam War. But the award also raises questions. One is why so few Medals of Honor have been awarded to those who have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, compared with the numbers issued during previous conflicts. Another is how it is decided whether a warrior's risk and sacrifice in battle merit such decorations.

Medals are awarded based on nuanced and often subjective criteria. To receive the Medal of Honor, for example, a recipient must have demonstrated "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty." The Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest decoration that can be bestowed on an American soldier, requires "extraordinary heroism." The Silver Star, the third-highest decoration, mandates "gallantry in action," while the Bronze Star can be granted for demonstrations of "heroic or meritorious achievement."

Certainly, many acts of bravery on the battlefield - Giunta's selflessness in protecting others during a Taliban ambush, for example - are deserving of the highest accolades the military can bestow. But on what basis does one decide what constitutes "conspicuous gallantry" versus "gallantry in action"? What is the difference between "extraordinary heroism" and "heroic achievement"?

U.S. military history has shown that such distinctions are easily influenced by both politics within the chain of command as well as the biases of individual commanders, who can forward or reject recommendations for medals as they see fit. Witness the fact that not a single African-American soldier received the Medal of Honor in World War II, even though thousands saw combat.

Giunta himself was uncomfortable receiving his medal, insisting "every single person" who was with him during the ambush "deserves to wear it." Meanwhile, other heroes are granted decidedly lesser military honors, often with no real explanation as to why.

In that regard, I think of William A. McFarland Jr.

Soon after I began my journalism career - not long after the end of the Vietnam War - I was assigned to cover the military because no other reporter at the newspaper in Colorado Springs, Colo., where I worked expressed interest in the beat. It was in that context I chanced to meet McFarland, who showed up unannounced one morning in the newsroom. Bureaucrats at the Veterans Administration, he complained, were denying disability payments for the physical and emotional trauma he'd suffered in Vietnam. Could I help him cut through the red tape?

He'd enlisted on his 17th birthday, he told me, to avenge the death of a boyhood friend killed in action. McFarland, a scout dog handler, was on patrol in 1967 when the Viet Cong ambushed his unit. Much as Giunta would do in Afghanistan 40 years later, McFarland spotted enemy soldiers dragging a wounded fellow American into a cave, rushed their position and saved his buddy - except McFarland did not escape unscathed. A burst from an AK-47 caught him in the leg. Another round hit him in the head. He insisted on showing me the gruesome scars.

It would be hard to argue that McFarland didn't display "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity" and that he risked his life "above and beyond the call of duty." Yet instead of receiving a more prestigious decoration, McFarland - whose officers considered him something of a malcontent before he was wounded - received a Bronze Star for valor and his second Purple Heart.

He never complained about it to me. As far as he was concerned, his greatest award was merely having survived Vietnam when so many others had not.

The morphine the doctors gave McFarland for pain as he recovered from his wounds at Walter Reed Army Medical Center led to a $180-a-day heroin habit that, after being discharged, he began supporting by transporting narcotics. In 1971, on a street in downtown San Francisco, he got into an argument with a drug dealer over payment and ripped out his throat, the way the Army had taught him to do. He then spent three years in prison.

I wrote a story that I like to think helped him get his VA benefits. We became friends of a sort. I lent him gas money, worked to find him a construction job, let him stay on my couch when he had nowhere else to sleep. Tortured by recurrent nightmares of being mortared, and of watching helplessly as a wounded fellow soldier was dragged away by the enemy, McFarland died about a year later after we met, crashing his van on a snowy mountain highway.

Hundreds of thousands of Bronze Stars were issued for service in Vietnam. Not to denigrate any medals or those who earned the right to wear them, but I can't help but wonder how things might have turned out for Bill McFarland if he'd been decorated with a higher award for his heroism. Would the accolades associated with a Silver Star, a Distinguished Service Cross or even the Medal of Honor have made a difference in the ultimate outcome of his life?

No one will ever know. I suspect, however, that he might have felt better about himself had he known that his country realized that his courage and sacrifice in battle, like Sal Giunta's, were anything but ordinary.

• David Freed is a screenwriter and his son is a California National Guard infantry lieutenant. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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