Opinion

Military medals review is a chance to properly honor heroes of Iraq, Afghanistan

The Pentagon has ordered the services to conduct a sweeping review of valor medals awarded since the 9/11 terror attacks and directed service leaders to determine whether individual military members were shortchanged in the medals they received. The order will require that more than 1,000 medals be reviewed.

Doubt that there's a legitimate need for a review? Consider this case: Army Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, his uniform seared off his body after crawling from a burning combat vehicle, went back into the flames to save his soldiers. Again and again and again, with enemy machine gun fire raking the area, until the platoon sergeant had pulled all six of his men to safety. Three weeks later, he lost his battle to survive the horrible injuries he suffered in October 2005 in Iraq.

It sounds like the stuff made for a Hollywood movie, one that concludes with the hero being pinned with a Medal of Honor.

Yet the Army posthumously awarded Cashe a Silver Star. The Silver Star is a highly respected and hard-earned valor award, one of which thousands were awarded during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; 718 in the Army alone. It's safe to say that, like Cashe, an untold number of Silver Star recipients deserved even greater honors. Cashe's supporters say he deserves consideration for the nation's highest valor award, the Medal of Honor. We agree.

His is one of a number of high-profile cases in which supporters have campaigned to have their awards upgraded. That includes Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta, who witnesses say fatally pulled a grenade to his body in Fallujah, Iraq, to shield his fellow grunts from the blast. He had his MoH nomination downgraded, a move that spawned outrage by family and fellow Marines. Senior Airman Dustin Temple was awarded the Air Force's second highest valor award, the Air Force Cross, for bravery in Afghanistan. The combat controller ran into enemy fire to recover an injured soldier and, according to the award citation, the airman's actions led to 10 enemy fighters being killed and the lives of at least 80 friendly forces being saved.

Said nationally recognized medals expert Doug Sterner of Temple's case: "What does it take to get a Medal of Honor?"

Far too much, owing in part to heavy-handed guidance given to those making the nominations. At the outset of the war in Afghanistan, battlefield commanders were directed to be stingy in valor award nominations to "preserve the integrity of the military awards program."

And that contributed to an environment in which top valor awards were approved at a rate far lower than at any time since the Civil War.

The Navy and Marine Corps initially resisted calls for a medals review because top officials believe that would undermine "the integrity of commander's decisions."

That's impossible because that integrity had already been seriously compromised by preemptive guidance to keep post-9/11 valor award nominations down.

The directive mandating a review of valor awards underscores that the bravery of a generation of American fighting forces has been consistently and shamefully undervalued in the process of turning recognition of combat valor into an arbitrary numbers game.

This is an opportunity to do right by today's heroes.

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