Monday, August 3, 2009

Nearly eight years of war in Afghanistan and six years in Iraq have left 4,000 troops killed in action, more than 34,000 wounded - and only six considered worthy of the nation’s highest military award for battlefield valor.

For some veterans and members of Congress, that last number simply doesn’t add up.

They question how so few Medals of Honor - all awarded posthumously - could be bestowed for two wars of such magnitude and duration.

Pentagon officials say the nature of war has changed. Laser-guided missiles destroy enemy positions without putting soldiers in harm’s way. Insurgents deploy roadside bombs rather than engage in firefights they’re certain to lose.

Yet, those explanations don’t tell the whole story, said Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican. Mr. Hunter sponsored legislation that directs the secretary of defense to review current trends in awarding the Medal of Honor to determine what’s behind the low count. The bill passed the House. If Senate negotiators go along, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates would have to report back by March 31.

“It seems like our collective standard for who gets the Medal of Honor has been raised,” said Mr. Hunter, a first-term member of Congress who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The basis of warfare is you’ve got to take ground and then you’ve got to hold it. That takes people walking into houses, running up hills, killing bad guys and then staying there and rebuffing counterattacks,” he added. “That’s how warfare has always been no matter how many bombs you drop and how many Predators you have flying around.”

Military officials said they welcome the opportunity to conduct an in-depth review of the award process. Still, they dispute Mr. Hunter’s theory.

“Nominations go through no more or less scrutiny than in the past,” Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez said. “The standard for the Medal of Honor is high, as one would expect for our nation’s most prestigious military decoration.”

AMVETS, a veteran’s advocacy group, said it supports Mr. Hunter’s efforts. It held a banquet for Medal of Honor recipients in January, and the low number of medals there was a big topic of discussion, said Jay Agg, the group’s communications director.

“They have expressed concern about their dwindling numbers and they’re wondering why there are so few Medals of Honor being awarded for current conflicts,” Mr. Agg said.

The Medal of Honor has been awarded 3,467 times since the Civil War. Almost half - 1,522 - were awarded in that conflict alone. The next highest tally came from World War II - 464. In the Vietnam War, 244 were awarded.

To get the Medal of Honor, at least two eyewitnesses have to view a deed so outstanding that it clearly distinguishes gallantry above and beyond the call of duty. No margin of doubt is allowed. Nominations make their way through military channels until eventually they’re approved at the highest levels of the Pentagon and then by the president.

Drew Dix, 64, of Mimbres, N.M., received the medal for actions taken during the Tet Offensive in Vietnam when he continually risked his life during a 56-hour battle to rescue civilians. He said he didn’t feel comfortable judging the current Medal of Honor process.

“We’ve trusted the military to fight this war,” Mr. Dix said. “We’ve got to trust the military in all aspects of it, including the awarding of medals.”

Jack Jacobs, 64, also received the award for actions taken in Vietnam when he returned again and again under intense fire to rescue wounded soldiers. He said the Pentagon’s explanation for the low Medal of Honor count is logical, but he would not rule out other factors because of the subjective nature of the award.

“I’m not a fan of single factor analysis,” Mr. Jacobs said. “There are lots of reasons why things occur and that is only one of them. Human attitudes also play a great role.”

Mr. Jacobs, a military analysis at MSNBC, predicted the war in Afghanistan would involve more of the kind of close combat that leads to Medal of Honors being awarded.

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