WASHINGTON — In October 2005, Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe was thrown from his Bradley fighting vehicle when a roadside bomb detonated underneath it. Covered in fuel, he rushed back into the burning wreck and pulled out six fellow soldiers.
He died from severe burns three weeks later. Army officials posthumously awarded him the Silver Star for “conspicuous gallantry” on the battlefield.
“You look at stories like that, and you wonder how he didn’t earn the Medal of Honor,” said Doug Sterner, a historian and leading expert on military medals. “That’s the kind of story you expect when you hear about a Medal of Honor. You wonder if there are higher-ups in the military who don’t understand the overall concept of courage anymore.”
Despite years of criticism from lawmakers and veterans groups, only a few servicemembers have been awarded the military’s highest honors for actions in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Only six troops have been recognized with the Medal of Honor for current conflicts. Nearly 250 were awarded in Vietnam.
Pentagon officials insist that standards for the awards have not changed in recent years, but are conducting an in-depth review of the Medal of Honor process in response to that criticism. That report, which includes a survey of troops’ understanding of the awards process, is due to Congress at the end of July.
Unlike other military honors, which are handled by the individual services, the Medal of Honor must be approved by the secretary of defense and the president. Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez said since 2002 the defense secretary’s office has completed review of seven Medal of Honor recommendations, but is currently reviewing others.
Joe Kinney, a retired Marine and author who has focused on military awards issues, said he thinks the long break between major conflicts and the lack of battlefield experience among many career officers is to blame for the low number of medal recommendations.
“There’s a dearth of people that can really make decisions about what constitutes valor,” he said.
But Lt. Col. Mike Moose, spokesman for Army Human Resources Command, said as the nation’s highest military honor “the scrutiny at all levels is, and should be, intense.”
Awarding the Silver Star — the military’s third-highest honor — is typically a 30-day process once a nomination arrives at Human Resources Command. Moose said the Medal of Honor process averages 16 months because of the multiple levels of review, and can take longer depending on the complexity of the circumstances.
In addition, Lainez said armed conflicts like Vietnam or World War II involved “close conflict with an organized enemy formation, an attribute different from contemporary operations.” Remote bomb attacks and better troop protection equipment limit the opportunities for some of the heroic acts seen in the past.
Kinney said that’s only a partial explanation.
“All of the Distinguished Service Cross and Navy Cross recipients [from Iraq and Afghanistan] I’ve interviewed deserved the Medal of Honor, in my opinion,” he said. “But they’re not getting it.”
Last fall, in a Pentagon press conference, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters that the lack of a living Medal of Honor recipient from Iraq or Afghanistan — all six awarded have been posthumous — was “a source of real concern to me” and one of former President George W. Bush’s “real regrets” upon leaving office.
He confirmed that several living troops are under consideration, but no public action has taken place on their nominations. The youngest living Medal of Honor recipient, Army Col. Gordon Roberts, is now 60 years old.
Kinney said he thinks a honoring a servicemember from the current conflict could serve as an inspiration, and not just for fellow troops.
“The whole country would be incredibly proud,” he said. “And they’ll get to see the courage that’s going on today.”