for his service in the 1968 Tet Offensive, said there were charges of “medal inflation” during that long war. But, in reality, commanders faced such large casualty rates and reviewed so many acts of heroism that it was difficult to make the charge stick.
“I can tell you in my battalion in Vietnam during a six-week period we had 11 Distinguished Service Crosses awarded,” Mr. Krohn said oftheArmy’ssecond-highestaward. “Ithinkeveryonewasdeservedbecause of the horrendous casualties we took.”
In most every conflict, medal inflation is suspected in the awarding of the Bronze Star. It is a recognition of someone operating under tough conditions, which surely fits just about all military personnel sent to Iraq and Afghanistan.
“If I was a commander, I would be very liberal in awarding Bronze Stars to soldiers who operated well in a very difficult and dangerous environment,” Mr. Krohn said. “At the lower levels, it recognizes a soldier’s contribution to the war effort, and families are proud when their sons and daughters are recognized with medals, higher or lower.”
Like Mr. Carr, the four branches maintain there is no medal inflation in the war on terrorism.
“The Marine Corps relies on experiencedoperationalcommanders [. . . ] to carefully weigh the Marines’ actions against established criteria,” said Lt. Col. Jim Taylor, the Corps’ assistant branch head for awards. “This time-tested review process maintains the consistency and integrity of all awards.”
The Corps is the only service so far to change the standards for an award based on fighting a new kind of enemy — one who uses atypical methodstoattackAmericantroops. In this case, the method is the improvised explosive device (IED), a roadside or car-borne bomb that has killed and injured thousands of U.S. fighters.
The secretary of the Navy changedrequirementsfortheCombat Action Ribbon, created in 1969, to include exposure to an IED explosion. A message to Marines said thechangestemmedfromthe“evolution of warfare and the realities of the modern battlefield.”
The change was made retroactive to Oct. 7, 2001, when a U.S. ledcoalition invaded Afghanistan.
Virtually everyone up the chain of command — from a platoon leader to a service secretary to the defense secretary — has a say in awards, depending on the medal. Final approval for the Bronze Star for sailors in Iraq and Afghanistan stops at the commander of naval forces, U.S. Central Command. A Navy Cross, the second-highest award after the Medal of Honor, is approved by the Navy secretary.
The other branches follow similar medal routes. The top Air Force general at Central Command may approve Distinguished Flying Crosses, Bronze Stars and other lower medals. Higher awards, such as the Air Force Cross and Silver Star, must be reviewed by the Air Force Decorations Board before final approval by the Air Force secretary.
“In order to combat inflationary pressures that might occur, the Air Force has well-established procedures in place to guard against that tendency,” said Capt. David Small, an Air Force spokesman at the Pentagon.
The Army, too, said it has safeguards built into the awards system. The process begins with commanders in the war zone, who must review reports of potentially heroic feats and potential eyewitnesses, then decide which medal to recommend.
“The commander on the ground is the one who must make the call on what level award is given to a soldier,” said Lt. Col. Kevin Arata, a spokesman on personnel issues. “Thecommandersaretheonesbest fit to recognize their efforts and validate their actions justifying each award.” Deflation
At a farewell press briefing Dec. 8 before he gave up his command, Army Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli left reporters with a tale of heroism. Gen. Chiarelli told the story of an unnamed soldier, a gunner on a Humvee, who saw a grenade tossed inside the truck. He yelled grenade and began to jump out of the vehicle, as per his training. But his combat buddies didn’t hear, or misunderstood.
“In a singular act of heroism, this soldier, who was halfway out of the truck, dropped back into the truck and placed his body against that grenade, thereby saving the lives of the four other individuals that were inside that truck,” said Gen. Chiarelli, until recently the No. 2 U.S. officer in Iraq.
Other commanders and the press have documented hundreds of heroic actions in Iraq and Afghanistan during the past five years. Yet, the Bush administration, to date, has awarded just two Medals of Honor, the nation’s highest military award.
To some veterans, it is a signal that the Pentagon is too timid in approving the award. They point out that the 1993 conflict in Somalia, where U.S. troops fought only one major urban battle, produced two MedalsofHonor,thesamenumber as five years of fighting in Afghanistan and nearly four in Iraq.
“Some commanders think the Army in the past was too generous in awards and, therefore, established very severe standards, which is their prerogative because it’s a commander’s decision whether or not a soldier gets recommended, and I think that makes sense,” Mr. Krohn said. “We would never want a universal standard that was too specific.”
Rep.JohnM.McHugh,NewYork Republicanandformerchairmanof the House Armed Services subcommittee on military personnel, said he is troubled by the fact that since the end of the Vietnam War, presidents have awarded only four Medals of Honor — all posthumously. Nearly half the recipients in World War II survived the action.
“I am concerned that the military services recently may have introduced more stringent criteria onto the Medal of Honor awards process than has existed in the past,” Mr. McHugh said at a hearing in December.
MichaelL.Dominguez,principal deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, called the evaluation process “exacting, as no award of a Medal of Honor should ever be open to criticism.”
“We must get it right the first time,” he said. It is the only award that requires approval by the secretary of defense and the president. Heroes
It is difficult to compare wars. Each involved different numbers oftroops,lengthsoftimeandenemy tactics. For the 12-year Vietnam War, the Pentagon approved 245 Medals of Honor, an average of 20 a year. But Vietnam required far more troops and constant, intense fighting, during which more than 58,000 Americans died. In Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. troops are typically fighting in smaller units against ambushes, suicide bombers and planted bombs.
“Those who compare valor awards from conflict to conflict must understand that the changing nature of warfare from large forceon-force battles to asymmetric warfare against small bands of insurgents [. . . ] does not necessarily support a direct comparison,” Mr. Dominguez said.
Atitspeak,theVietnamWarcommanded more than 500,000 troops. TheAfghanistan-Iraqwarsaverage about 160,000 on any given day.
On April 4, 2003, Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith was part of a 3rd Infantry Division unit that was building a holding cell for prisoners of war near Baghdad International Airport. Suddenly, his three dozen men came under attack by a company-size Iraqi force that hurled in mortar fire and grenades.
“Sergeant First Class Smith braved hostile enemy fire to personallyengagetheenemywithhand grenadesandanti-tankweaponsand organized the evacuation of three wounded soldiers from an armored personnelcarrierhitbyenemyfire,” his citation read. “In total disregard forhisownlife,hemaintainedhisexposedpositioninordertoengagethe attacking enemy force. [. . . ] During this action, he was mortally wounded.”
President Bush posthumously awarded Sgt. Smith the Medal of Honor in April 2005.
“Sergeant Smith manned a 50calibermachinegunatopadamaged armored vehicle,” Mr. Bush said. “From a completely exposed position, he killed as many as 50 enemy soldiers as he protected his men.”
On Jan. 11, the morning after telling the nation his new strategy for Iraq, Mr. Bush awarded the war on terrorism’s second Medal of Honor. Again, the award was posthumous.
Marine Corps Cpl. Jason Dunham,24,andhisriflesquadwereon patrol in a town near the Syrian border in April 2004 when he was attacked by an Iraqi insurgent. In hand-to-hand fighting, the Iraqi insurgent dropped a grenade. Cpl. Dunham fell on top of it, using his Kevlar helmet to block the blast. Cpl. Dunham, a native of upstate New York, died of his wounds eight days later at the National Naval Medical Hospital in Bethesda, Md.
“By his selflessness, Corporal Dunhamsavedthelivesoftwoofhis men, and showed the world what it means to be a Marine,” Mr. Bush said at a White House ceremony.
As for the unnamed hero mentioned in Gen. Chiarelli’s press conference, the military later identified him as Army Pvt. 1st Class Ross A. McGinnis,19,anamateurmechanic from Knox, Pa. He was quickly awarded the Silver Star.
“He had time to jump out of the truck,” the military quoted Sgt. 1st ClassCedricThomasassaying.“He chose not to.”