President Obama announced last week that he will award the Medal of Honor to retired Marine Lance Cpl. Kyle Carpenter for diving on a grenade to save a comrade — but the decision raises thorny questions about consistency, after other troops who dived on grenades have not been given the top military honor.
Cpl. Carpenter also becomes the eighth living recipient from Afghanistan, which raises its own questions, since there has yet to be a living recipient of the medal from the war in Iraq.
Nobody doubts Cpl. Carpenter’s heroism nor that of the other Afghanistan recipients — but they wonder why there hasn’t been a single living recipient from Iraq.
“There’s something wrong, I can tell you that,” said James C. Roberts, president of the Americans Veterans Center. “It’s an abnormal situation. Any past conflict of combat situations equivalent to Iraq would have produced living Medal of Honor recipients.”
Cpl. Carpenter doesn’t even remember throwing himself in front of Lance Cpl. Nicholas Eufrazio to absorb the blast that day in November 2010, when they were on patrol in Helmand Province in Afghanistan. But the physical evidence says he did — saving Cpl. Eufrazio’s life while sustaining a devastating list of injuries himself, including losing his right eye and most of his jaw and teeth and shattering his arms.
He will receive the Medal of Honor in a ceremony at the White House next month.
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But for nearly a decade, advocates have argued Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta deserves the same honor for having scooped a grenade under himself while fighting in Fallujah, Iraq, with his comrades saying he died to save their lives. He was awarded the Navy Cross.
Then there are the cases of Cpl. Jason Dunham, who covered a grenade with his helmet and body, saving at least two fellow Marines and earning the Medal of Honor, and Sgt. Major Bradley Kasal, who jumped on the back of another Marine to shield him from a grenade blast, absorbing dozens of grenade fragments but living. He was awarded the Navy Cross.
“For each of these Marines, their actions are uniquely similar. Enemy grenades were involved and each Marine either covered the grenade blast or intentionally shielded others. All of them preserved the lives of their fellow Marines,” Rep. Duncan Hunter, who himself served tours as a Marine officer in Afghanistan and Iraq, wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
The Peralta case in particular has divided the military.
The Navy has questioned whether he actually was aware of what he was doing, giving the serious head wound he’d suffered from enemy fire — though the service awarded him the Navy Cross for the action, citing his exceptional heroism. Peralta’s family has refused to accept the Navy Cross.
While Peralta’s award, if it happened, would be posthumous, Mr. Hunter says Mr. Hagel should also be on the lookout for living Iraq war veterans deserving of an upgrade to the Medal of Honor.
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For years, there weren’t any living recipients from either Afghanistan or Iraq. Indeed, every single Medal of Honor bestowed by President George W. Bush for the war on terror was issued posthumously.
President Obama changed that, awarding then-Army Specialist Salvatore A. Giunta the medal in 2010 for a stunning operation in which he braved withering enemy fire to defend and provide medical aid to wounded comrades, then mounted a solo rescue mission to recover a wounded soldier who was being stolen away by two insurgents.
Mr. Obama has since awarded another half-dozen medals to other living recipients from the Afghanistan war, and Cpl. Carpenter will be the eighth.
One theory is that the fighting is different in Afghanistan, lending itself to the kind of combat and heroism that produces the medal. Cpl. Carpenter will be the 10th medal awarded, living or deceased, from Afghanistan, while just four have been awarded for Iraq — all posthumous.
But some wonder whether there isn’t a political component to the decision, with the unpopularity of the Iraq war still lingering.
Should the military want to find deserving Iraq cases, Mr. Hunter has some ideas, starting with then-First Lt. Brian Chontosh, whose heroism on March 25, 2003, during the initial push to gain control of Iraq, has become legendary among fellow Marines.
According to his Navy Cross citation, Lt. Chontosh ordered his Humvee to drive straight at an enemy machine gun nest, smashing it with .50-caliber machine gunfire, then driving into an enemy trench. Lt. Chontosh bailed out of the Humvee and, picking up enemy rifles and even a rocket-propelled grenade launcher as he went, mowed down more than 20 Iraqi troops, clearing 200 meters of the trench of the enemy. The Navy Cross citation notes that during his “ferocious attack” he showed a “complete disregard for his safety.”
Mr. Roberts, president of the American Veterans Center, said that citation is deserving of the top honor.
“There’s no question about the fact that he should have had the Medal of Honor. None,” Mr. Roberts said. “It’s an outrage.”