Pentagon & Congress

New rules would limit DOD officials' ability to revoke valor awards

WASHINGTON — A House proposal would severely limit defense officials' ability to revoke battlefield valor awards, which supporters say rightly preserves the record of their wartime heroism.

As part of the annual defense authorization bill debate, House Armed Services Committee lawmakers last week approved new rules that would allow military valor awards to be rescinded only if later evidence shows the honor was given improperly, or if the service member is later convicted of a serious violent felony.  

"We're talking about hijacking an airplane, rape, murder and so on," said amendment sponsor Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif. "Then the valor award can be revoked."

Hunter, who served with the Marine Corps in Iraq and Afghanistan, argued the change is needed because defense officials can — and do — rescind valor awards for unrelated infractions later in troops' military careers. He called that unfair and absurd.

"Essentially, if a warfighter is awarded the Silver Star for actions on the battlefield, that award can be subsequently stripped away from him or her for the reasons that have nothing to do with the earning of that award," he said.

"This is unacceptable. No matter what decisions they may make upon returning, that doesn't change the fact that (they) acted heroically on the battlefield."

In recent years, service commanders have sent out reminders to troops that their awards and ribbons can be taken away if they fail to maintain "professional standards" in the ranks. Hunter has long been a critic of the move, and found several high-profile cases of troops punished and stripped of honors for actions that happen far from their combat heroics.

Military commanders have argued the issue is a matter of professionalism and good order. Hunter has characterized it as bureaucratic overreach.

If officials revoke a valor award because of a criminal act, they must also prove that crime was not the result of any "extenuating factors," such as combat-related traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Similar limitations were passed by the House in the annual defense policy bill last year but later amended by the Senate during conference negotiations. The new proposal was passed without opposition by committee members.

The provision and the entire authorization bill must be passed by the House, survive another conference committee with the Senate and be signed into law by the president before going into effect.

Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at lshane@militarytimes.com.

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