Medal of Honor
Honoring those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country
They knew they would probably die. How could they not?
Still, they dived on grenades, darted into gunfire to save wounded comrades and beat back enemy attacks. And for those actions, on the sun-baked streets of Iraq and in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan, they received a Medal of Honor, the United States’ highest award for bravery.
“They were willing to go to the extreme of putting themselves in jeopardy to save someone else,” says Dan Murphy, father of Navy SEAL and medal recipient Michael Murphy. “I don’t think it gets any more honorable than that.”
Brian Mockenhaupt is a Detroit-based writer who is an Alicia Patterson fellow reporting on the physical and psychological effects of war. He served as a noncommissioned officer with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division from 2002 to 2005, spending 18 months in Iraq.
About the Medal of Honor
Created by Congress in 1862 to recognize valorous conduct, the Medal of Honor has been awarded 3,467 times. Nineteen men received it twice. One woman, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, received the medal, in 1865 for her services as a Civil War nurse at the first Battle of Bull Run.
Nearly half the medals were awarded during the Civil War, when it was one of the country’s few military recognitions. Since then, as criteria became more stringent and lesser medals for valor were introduced, the Medal of Honor has grown in prominence and exclusivity.
Just eight have been awarded for actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Except for one, all were to men mortally wounded in battle.
According to legislation that created the medal, “The deed performed must have been one of personal bravery or self-sacrifice so conspicuous as to clearly distinguish the individual above his comrades and must have involved risk of life.”
The award process, which requires statements by at least two eyewitnesses, can take two years.
After fielding complaints that too few Medals of Honor had been awarded in recent years — and all posthumously —Congress asked the Secretary of Defense to review the process and criteria. The report is due to the House Armed Services Committee on March 31, 2010.
Part of the explanation for the relatively small number of Medals of Honor is the evolution of American warfare. New technologies such as aerial drones and precision-guided bombs allow commanders to engage enemy forces from a distance and keep more soldiers out of harm’s way.
“Additionally, the war is against non-uniformed insurgents who inflict damage on U.S. personnel by using tactics and techniques that reduce their risk of being personally engaged,” according to Lt. Col. Les Melnyk, a Defense Department spokesman.
“The enemy minimizes their risk by using remotely detonated improvised explosive devices, suicide bombers, and rocket, mortar and sniper attacks.”
The vast majority of U.S. deaths and injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan have been caused by IEDs, according to the Defense Manpower Data Center.
But while there may be less close-quarters combat than in past wars, there are still many moments on today’s battlefields when service members weigh a deadly question:
Will they sacrifice their own lives to save others?