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WASHINGTON — The Medal of Honor and other top military honors should not be reserved solely for troops killed in action, House members told defense officials Wednesday.

At a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing on the awarding of military medals, several representatives expressed concern that the Defense Department has been overly cautious when it comes to honoring heroes serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for some honors, considering only acts that cost the servicemember his life.

“I am concerned that the military services may have introduced more stringent criteria into the Medal of Honor awards process than in the past,” said subcommittee chairman Rep. John McHugh, R-N.Y.

“During the current global war on terrorism there has been no lack of valorous actions. But since the end of the Vietnam War only four men have been awarded the Medal of Honor … two in Somalia and two in Iraq.”

Military officials said they haven’t been stricter with awarding that honor or other top military medals, but they do take the utmost care in investigating troops’ heroic actions.

“Each demonstration of heroism is unique, and often it becomes a tough judgment call,” said Michael Dominguez, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel. “Our policies are designed to make sure to get it right the first time.”

The Defense Department has been conducting a review of military medals since July, focusing on awards given by all of the services, such as the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

Officials said the goal is to provide more consistency in how the medals are awarded within each service, and to provide for standards across the services for related honors, such as the “V” device for valor.

For the highest honors — in particular the Medal of Honor — recipients must not only show courage and leadership but also selflessly risk their lives to save others.

“History shows injury, and even death, as a measure of the risk,” said Vice Adm. John Harvey Jr., chief of naval personnel.

Still, members of the subcommittee questioned why troops who survive a dangerous and heroic act are more likely to receive a service cross instead of a Medal of Honor.

Joseph Kinney, an author who has been researching the military honors process for several decades, testified before the subcommittee that Medals of Honor were awarded at nearly five times the rate during the Vietnam War than during the current conflicts overseas.

He said the “stinginess” of the military not only hurts morale, but it keeps the military from showing off the bravery of its troops.

“This nation desperately needs its heroes,” he said. “They’re there, but we haven’t acknowledged them.”

Kinney also criticized the time it takes for many of the medals to be awarded — the Marines took nearly three years to award a Medal of Honor to Cpl. Jason Dunham — saying the delay often lessens the chance any honor will be bestowed.

But the military commanders said combat conditions often delay timely filing of the proper paperwork, and the services’ thorough vetting process further postpones those awards.

The Defense Department review is expected to be completed sometime next summer.

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