Later this summer Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is expected to decide whether the Medal of Honor — the nation’s highest military award — has been kept from deserving troops who showed extraordinary valor during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We’re taking a hard look at all this and it’s a Department-wide effort," said Pentagon spokesman Nate Christensen.
Awarded by the President of the United States in the name of Congress, the Medal of Honor has been awarded to 3,495 service members since the beginning of the Civil War.
While estimates vary on just how many American troops have deployed to war since 9/11, most agree it's likely more than 2.5 million. But only four Medals of Honor have been awarded to troops in Iraq. All have been posthumous. For actions in Afghanistan, 12 have received the Medal of Honor – three posthumously, and nine to living recipients.
According to data from The Army Times, from World War I through Vietnam, the government awarded between two and three Medals of Honor per 100,000 troops. Since 9/11, the rate has dropped to less than one-tenth that.
The scarcity of Medals of Honor for actions in Iraq and Afghanistan has been a point of contention for many vets.
Carter will review the work of a panel of senior uniformed and civilian officials from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps convened by his predecessor, Chuck Hagel. Over the past several decades, each service has had slightly different approaches to awarding medals for combat actions as well as for achievements off the battlefield.
Carter is expected to standardize which actions should be recognized by each valor award, from the Medal of Honor to the service crosses and the Silver Star. The panel will also address what is appropriate for the Bronze Star, Legion of Merit and other medals that can awarded with a "V" device for valor.
The idea is to make sure one type of action is not recognized, for example, with a Silver Star in the Army but by a Bronze Star in the Marine Corps. The panel will set guidelines for each of the services to use — but will not itself decide what medal will be awarded for every case going forward.
Carter is expected to release the panel’s findings later this summer.
In Iraq, three of the four Medals of Honor have gone to troops who knowingly sacrificed their own lives to save others — by covering hand grenades with their own bodies.
That's what eyewitnesses said Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta did in 2004 — but he only received the Navy Cross, the Marine Corps’ second-highest award for combat valor.
Peralta’s case has been Exhibit A for the Pentagon’s critics ever since the Marine sergeant was killed in Fallujah. For 11 years, his family has held out for the Medal of Honor, refusing to accept the Navy Cross he’d been awarded. But earlier this month, the Peralta family finally accepted the Navy Cross on his behalf at a ceremony on Camp Pendleton.
Writer Brian Van Reet – a former Army tank crewman – calls the Medal of Honor process “stingy.”
“It’s become kind of this Holy of Holies that we don’t really even give out anymore. And so to me, that makes it, if we’re not going to give it to Peralta, who are we going to give it to?”
Van Reet, who received the Bronze Star for Valor for service in Baghdad, said he’s puzzled by that trend.
“I don’t think you can explain that away just by saying ‘this is a different kind of war.’ Because, while that’s true, people are still demonstrating the same kind of courage,” he said.
Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman, said standards haven’t changed. He said the military carefully considers a service member’s actions, eyewitness accounts, as well as other evidence.
"You know the Medal of Honor standard is very high and that’s what we’d expect from our nation’s most prestigious military award," he said. "And we require proof beyond a quote-unquote reasonable doubt that the member performed those valorous actions for which the Medal of Honor is recommended."
This story is part of the American Homefront Project, a collaboration of KUOW, KPCC and KUNC. The project reports on military life and veterans issues, covering major policy issues at the Pentagon and Veterans Administration, as well as the everyday issues that service members and veterans experience.