More than 150 years after he gave his life at Gettysburg leading the effort to repel Pickett’s Charge, 1st Lt. Alonzo H. Cushing is finally on track to get the Medal of Honor after Congress last month approved waiving the time limit for the nation’s top military honor.
The waiver was one of a half-dozen included in the massive defense policy bill — legislation that also began to tweak the Medal of Honor system, standardizing the amount of time a nomination may be considered and removing a cap that, in recent years, had said nobody could win the medal more than once.
In the case of Cushing, Congress’ approval puts him over a major hurdle. Now he must clear a review by the Defense Department, which has expressed support, and then one by President Obama.
“Having members of both parties in both Houses coming together to recognize Lt. Cushing’s valor is amazing,” said Dave Krueger, one of those who has picked up the banner to fight for Cushing. “It has not, nor should it be, an easy process. The story of Lt. Cushing is so compelling that our legislators have cleared the way for the president to award him this nation’s highest military honor.”
It’s unclear why Cushing wasn’t awarded the medal in the 1800s.
Those above and below him in rank both earned it, including Gen. Alexander S. Webb, who led the overall defense against Pickett’s Charge and gave permission for Cushing to advance, and Cushing’s own trusted Sgt. Frederick Fuger, who held up the wounded Cushing so he could see the battlefield and served as the lieutenant’s megaphone, calling out the orders Cushing could only whisper because of his two injuries.
Cushing died on the Pennsylvania battlefield of a third injury.
Now that the Cushing nomination is officially pending, the Pentagon would not comment on his chances, nor those of the five other troops from long-ended wars in Vietnam and Korea whom Congress also made eligible to receive the Medal of Honor or the Distinguished Service Cross, which is the second-highest honor for a soldier.
Pentagon officials did say, however, that they asked for two of the changes that could affect current troops.
In one change, the law now allows service members to earn multiple Medals of Honor if their actions merit it.
“Given that the Medal of Honor is our nation’s most prestigious military decoration, the department believes that a member who performed a subsequent act justifying award of a 2nd Medal of Honor should be recognized with a 2nd Medal of Honor,” said Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen, spokesman for personnel and readiness for the Defense Department.
The other major change was to set a standard time frame for all of the services. The law sets time limits for how long after the combat action someone can be recommended and awarded the medal, but the limits varied among the services.
Now, all of the services will have three years to make the recommendation and five years to issue the award.
Congress can always come in later and waive the time limit, as it did in the case of Cushing.
But the overall Medal of Honor system came under scrutiny after President George W. Bush, despite overseeing two active wars, didn’t award a single living person from either of those conflicts the highest honor.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, who served tours as a Marine officer in Afghanistan and Iraq, has pushed for medal upgrades for two Marines in particular: Sgt. Rafael Peralta, who was killed smothering a grenade in Iraq, and then-1st Lt. Brian Chontosh, who with his Humvee taking fire from a trench in the initial days of the Iraq War ordered his driver to head straight into the trench, and proceeded to empty his rifle, his pistol, two discarded enemy AK-47s and even a discarded RPG, clearing the trench.
Joe Kasper, a spokesman for Mr. Hunter, said the defense policy bill’s time-limit change does help, but there are other problems with the award system that need to be corrected.
“The time permitted from recommendation, to review, to award has always been problematic and previously existed as one of several inconsistencies in a process that specifically in recent years, has not adequately recognized acts of combat valor,” Mr. Kasper said in an email. “But even with this change, the MoH process is still overshadowed by several high profile errors that have undermined faith and confidence in the process.”
Mr. Kasper said the credibility of the process rests now with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who has told Mr. Hunter he will take another look at Peralta’s case.
“If the secretary does the right thing and upgrades Peralta’s Navy Cross, then much of the trust and confidence in the process that has been lost over the last decade will be restored,” Mr. Kasper said.
Peter Collier, author of the book “Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty,” said the award process has become “very, shall we say, sensitive” in the past 25 years.
Congress authorized the military to go back and look for minorities who may have been overlooked, in order to try to correct the record in instances when someone was deserving.
As for the current debate, Mr. Collier said there has been a lot of pressure to try to find living recipients who should earn the medal for actions during the war on terrorism.
In 2010, Staff Sgt. Sal Giunta became the first living recipient since the Vietnam War.
“It was looked on … by the Medal of Honor community, as sort of a miracle,” Mr. Collier said.
In October, former Army Capt. William Swenson was awarded the medal after a long delay that included having his paperwork lost.
Still, Mr. Collier said, the overall system has held up well, and he cautioned against political changes. “This has been pretty damned good and the integrity of it has been pretty solid,” he said.
Also included in the defense policy bill is a directive that the Pentagon review the policy that prohibited those wounded in the Fort Hood attack from being awarded Purple Hearts.
Under current policy, those wounded or killed were deemed victims of workplace violence, but some members of Congress say they should be considered casualties in the war on terrorism and eligible for the Purple Heart.