Cover Story: Medal of Honor Trends
On October 17, 2005, near Samarra, Iraq, Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe’s Bradley Fighting Vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device. Cashe retrieved six Soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter from the burning vehicle, receiving burns on nearly 72% of his body. He died less than a month later. Recently, he was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for his heroic acts of valor - the first Black veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to earn the decoration.
“May we all find the courage to live up to the examples that they have set. May we all find the commitment to serve and defend our republic, and may we all find the dedication and duty to our democracy that these heroes have shown," said Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III at the most recent Medal of Honor ceremony at the Pentagon in early July.
The Medal of Honor is the highest medal for valor in combat that can be awarded to members of the armed forces in the United States. The medal was first authorized in 1861 and over 3,400 service members have been awarded it since then.
The recommendation process for the medal is scrutinized at every level and often takes more than 18 months to complete. Paperwork passes through a chain of command that includes a member of Congress, the Chief of Staff of the Army, the Secretary of Defense, and then finally the President. Apart from the prestige that accompanies such an award, Medal of Honor recipients receive a monthly pension from the Department of Veteran Affairs and an increase in retired pay.
At the end of last year, President Biden signed the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, which expanded eligibility for more heroes to receive the award. Each Medal of Honor must still be approved by the President, but the NDAA waives the time limit that requires the medal to be awarded within five years of the combat action. This modification permits potential upgrades from previous lesser awards.
“I’m 100% supportive of the upgrades,” said Paul W. Bucha, a Medal of Honor recipient and Veterans Advantage Advisory Board member. “It’s a lot harder to get the Medal of Honor through the upgrade process than it is through the direct process.”
The achievements of four Vietnam War soldiers were upgraded earlier this month, thanks to the recent policy change. President Biden awarded Spec. 5 Dwight Birdwell, who led an armored unit through a bloody ambush in 1968; Maj. John J. Duffy, a Special Forces officer who fought off an attack in 1972; Spec. 5 Dennis M. Fujii, who, having survived a helicopter crash, directed airstrikes on advancing forces while under fire in Laos in 1971; and Staff Sgt. Edward N. Kaneshiro, who cleared a trench of enemy fighters using grenades and a rifle in 1966 and died a few months later.
“It has been a long journey to this day for those heroes and their families, and more than 50 years have passed — 50 years — since the jungles of Vietnam, where as young men these soldiers first proved their mettle,” President Biden said. “Time has not diminished their astonishing bravery, their selflessness in putting the lives of others ahead of their own, and the gratitude that we as a nation owe them.”
Next year’s NDAA may see more changes to Medal of Honor legislation, this time to right certain wrongs. Twenty soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor after a massacre near Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota on Dec. 29, 1890, where troops from the 7th Cavalry and accompanying artillery units killed hundreds of Lakota men, women, and children. The Native American massacre was one of the most infamous in history and revoking of this recognition would be a step towards recognizing the indigenous people and their land.
There are currently 66 living recipients of the Medal of Honor, the U.S. military's highest decoration. Of the living recipients, three were awarded in the Korean War, 47 in the Vietnam War, 14 in the War in Afghanistan, and two from the War in Iraq.