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The number of Medal of Honor recipients from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan can be counted on one hand.
Each of the five acted spontaneously and heroically to save the lives of comrades. Each exemplified the medal's criteria of "gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of one's own life above and beyond the call of duty."
And each was killed in action or died from wounds received in action.
Now, 146 years after the first Medals of Honor were awarded — to living soldiers — it remains to be seen whether anyone will ever again earn a Medal of Honor and survive to accept it.
With the exception of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, no other major conflict in modern military history has failed to produce a living recipient of the nation's highest award for valor. And no war has ever produced so few Medal of Honor — or service cross — recipients.
There are several possible reasons: the proliferation of other valor awards; the changing nature of warfare; and a review process that has become so rigorous — and, some say, meddlesome — that no living person can be good enough to pass all the tests.
A Military Times analysis of Medal of Honor and service cross awards dating back to 1861, when the MoH was first authorized, shows a sharp decline, rekindling debate on whether the military is properly recognizing today's heroes.
By the numbers
Although numbers don't tell the whole story, America's 20th-century wars produced highly consistent rates of Medal of Honor heroism.
From World War I through Vietnam, the rate of Medal of Honor recipients per 100,000 service members stayed between 2.3 (Korea) and 2.9 (World War II). But since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, only five Medals of Honor have been awarded, a rate of 0.1 per 100,000 — one in a million.
A similar disparity occurs on the second tier of valor awards: Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross and Air Force Cross.
Throughout the 20th century, the rate of service cross recipients per 100,000 troops ranged from a low of 19 in Korea to a high of 167 in World War I.
But for the post-9/11 wars, it's only one per 100,000.
A politicized process?
"All of us are a little concerned about the fact that people aren't being recognized," said Army Reserve Col. Jay Duquette, who recently retired as deputy director of operations at Headquarters, 9th Regional Support Command, Fort Shafter, Hawaii.
"There's a perception that somehow the political process has at the Defense Department or wherever created some sort of limitation on higher-level decorations," Duquette said. "I don't know if that is true. But that is a perception that exists among the lower-level officer corps."
Former Marine Joseph Kinney, a Vietnam veteran who has advocated for greater recognition of heroism in combat, is convinced that's true. The military awards system, he said, is "broken."
Kinney testified before the House Armed Services Committee in 2006, urging the Pentagon to be more consistent in applying award criteria and to speed the review process for Medal of Honor nominees.
In an interview, Kinney noted how much longer award reviews took in the George W. Bush years versus the Clinton administration.
It took just 6½ months for the Clinton administration to posthumously award Medals of Honor to Army Master Sgt. Gary Gordon and Army Sgt. 1st Class Randall Shughart for heroic action in Somalia on Oct. 3, 1993.
By contrast, during the Bush years, the speediest Medal of Honor approval took 18 months. One took as long as three years.
"The system has failed because of this inordinate fear that somebody is going to get the Medal of Honor [and] be an embarrassment," Kinney said. "They decided that the Medal of Honor should go not only to people who are brave, but pure."
After Sgt. Rafael Peralta was denied the Medal of Honor in 2008 — a case that drew heavy scrutiny, including use of forensic evidence — questions were raised about whether Peralta's onetime status as an illegal immigrant played a part in the decision.
Peralta was a scout team member assigned to clear houses during the second battle of Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004. Insurgents hiding in one house opened fire, hitting Peralta multiple times, then threw a grenade at him and other Marines behind him. While lying wounded on the floor, Peralta reportedly gathered the grenade beneath him and absorbed the blast, saving the lives of his fellow Marines.
His nomination for the Medal of Honor was approved by the commandant of the Marine Corps and the secretary of the Navy, but nixed at the highest levels of the Pentagon. He was instead awarded the Navy Cross, the nation's second-highest award for valor — but his family has refused to accept it.
Defense and service officials deny that the process has become politicized. The approach used to recognize acts of valor remains unchanged, Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez said.
"Each recommendation is carefully considered based on the merits of the individual's actions, eyewitness accounts and other supporting evidence," she said. "The standard for the Medal of Honor is high, as one would expect."
Commandant Gen. James Conway also said the standards haven't changed. But he was at a loss to explain why no living service member has been awarded the Medal of Honor in these past 7½ years of war.
"The nature of the award isn't such that you have to be dead to receive it. That's never been the standard for awards. It's not the standard today," Conway said.
"It's arguably happenstance that the first five out of Iraq or Afghanistan have been posthumous. But that's not the standard and that's not the way commanders are looking at it in the field."
Shades of gray
Of course, comparing medal statistics and heroes throughout the ages is difficult. It's like comparing athletes from one generation to another: Which was better, the 1960s Celtics of Bill Russell or the 1990s Bulls of Michael Jordan? Who was a better boxer, Muhammad Ali or Mike Tyson?
In sports, many factors muddy the waters of comparison: rules changes, more specialized physical training and increasingly bigger, faster and stronger athletes.
Similarly, a variety of factors complicate valor comparisons: the evolution of the awards system, the proliferation of valor awards, variants of asymmetric warfare.
Fred Borch, a retired Army officer and regimental historian for the Judge Advocate General's Corps who writes history columns for Military Times, noted that the vast majority of attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq result from improvised explosive devices.
"It's pretty hard to be a hero against an IED," he said.
Charles Mugno, director of the Institute of Heraldry at Fort Belvoir, Va., said the Medal of Honor essentially was the military's sole valor award until 1917. Today, there are two dozen valor decorations.
"A lot of Medals of Honor were given out because there was no substitute," Mugno said. "If you look at the citations for [different campaigns], you'll see a significant difference in acts of valor and degree of valor."
A tale of two citations
But the differences might not be what one expects.
In 1942, Gen. Douglas MacArthur awarded a Silver Star, the third-highest valor medal, to Lt. Cmdr. Lyndon B. Johnson, who would go on to become the 36th president, for "gallantry in action" while flying as an "observer" in a B-26 bomber that was intercepted by enemy fighters over New Guinea.
LBJ biographer Robert Caro has called the medal "one of the most undeserved Silver Stars in history."
The citation reads: "When ... the plane in which Lieutenant Commander Johnson was an observer, developed mechanical trouble and was forced to turn back alone, presenting a favorable target to the enemy fighters, he evidenced marked coolness in spite of the hazards involved. His gallant action enabled him to obtain and return with valuable information."
Compare that to an Army narrative of the Silver Star action for Army Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, who was soaked in fuel after his Bradley fighting vehicle hit a roadside bomb on Oct. 17, 2005, in Samarra, Iraq.
"After the vehicle came to a stop and erupted in flames, he helped the driver out of the hatch and extinguished his flames," the narrative begins. The document goes on to explain how Cashe helped six more soldiers and a translator out of the back of the vehicle — even as flames spread to his uniform.
"Despite terrible pain, Sergeant First Class Cashe placed one injured soldier on the ground and returned to the burning vehicle to retrieve another burning soldier, all the while, he was himself still on fire. Sergeant First Class Cashe is credited with saving the lives of six soldiers, evacuating them despite his own injuries and severe burns," the narrative states.
Cashe died of his burns three weeks later. His citation measures up against Medal of Honor citations from any 20th-century war.
Frustration among troops
Older combat veterans sometimes tease younger ones about not fighting in a "real" war. But even vets from Vietnam, Korea and World War II say they scratch their heads about the dearth of top valor awards today.
"I'm sure that there are people who are deserving of these who could have been recognized and haven't been," said retired Marine Lt. Col. Thomas Richards, past national commander of the Legion of Valor, an organization for recipients of the Medal of Honor and service crosses.
"The tragedy is we lose the opportunity to inspire all of their comrades in arms and inspire future generations to serve their country and emulate them," said Richards, who received the Navy Cross for action in 1969 in Vietnam.
In recent letters to Military Times, officers and enlisted members have vented about the fact that so few of the 1.8 million troops who have deployed since 2001 have received the military's most coveted medal.
"Nobody can honestly tell me that as this war goes into its eighth year, there are only five men deserving Medals of Honor, and all of them died," wrote Army Master Sgt. Eric Schaffer. "In hundreds of thousands of hours of combat, hundreds of thousands of firefights, battles and actions of all sorts, there have been … only five instances where a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine has demonstrated incredible valor?"
Army Sgt. 1st Class Douglas Tolliver Jr. said: "Has the regulation been rewritten to show 'loss of life' rather than 'above and beyond the call of duty'? I think not."
In a commentary in Marine Corps Times, Maj. Scott Huesing referenced the dwindling number of living Medal of Honor recipients, who now total 98. "When will we see the first Marine, sailor, airman or soldier from this generation wearing one? Who will be the living legacies of these wars, the narrators of the battles and sacrifices made over the last seven years and those to come?"
Charles McDowell, a retired Air Force Reserve lieutenant colonel and former president of the Orders and Medals Society of America, said he understands the frustration.
"At what point does it become so exclusive that for all practical purposes, it ceases to exist operationally?" he said.
Some service members point to an overabundance of medals awarded during the 1991 Gulf War as a likely culprit for the low number of valor awards today. Indeed, during the opening days of the war in Afghanistan, the military issued a directive urging field commanders to recognize only the most deserving troops for awards.
The directive, which remains in effect, states in part: "To preserve the integrity of the military awards program and to ensure meaningful recognition ... special care should be exercised so that military decorations for meritorious and valorous achievement or service are only approved for those ... who truly distinguish themselves from among their comrades by exceptional performance in combat or in support of combat operations."
Living recipient ahead?
With the change in administrations, Kinney, the former Marine, said he's hopeful that Peralta and other war heroes will soon receive proper recognition.
"I think we're going to see more Medals of Honor," he said. "I think [President Barack] Obama will push it."
The push will have to come from lower down — and it may already have started. Conway hinted as much March 11.
"We have a case that I've sent an investigating officer out to take a look at on the West Coast that, if proven, I think will prompt me to recommend the Medal of Honor for a living Marine."
If it comes to pass this year, that Marine will be the first living Medal of Honor recipient since 1973 to get the award during the conflict in which he served — a stretch of 36 years.