History Interest

What’s Wrong with “Winning” the Medal of Honor?

Written by AJ Powell

Well, for starters, it’s not a contest. You don’t “Win” the Medal of Honor, the nations highest Honor is bestowed, not won…

Why is it so very important to bring up that fact? Because the choice of words used to describe how the MoH is received represents an understanding of what it means to present the medal in the first place.

To get an idea of what is meant by this, we need to understand a bit of history on the MoH and how it became the Honor it is today.

Today, the 12th of July, 2015, is the 153rd anniversary of the day President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the provision authorizing the creation of the U.S. Army Medal of Honor. However, while this historic date may continue to be recognized as the birth date for today’s MoH, it is not the earliest date for the creation of the medal itself, and in fact, it was the Navy who first received authorization for the MoH.

Previously, on October 9, 1861, Senator James W. Grimes of Iowa, Chairman on the Committee on Naval Affairs, proposed Public Resolution Number 82 in the United States Senate. The bill stated that it was designed to “promote the efficiency of the Navy” by authorizing the production and distribution of “Medals of Honor”. The bill was passed 21 December 1861, authorizing the medal’s bestowal upon “such Petty Officers, Seamen, Landsmen and Marines as shall distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action and other seamanlike qualities during the present war (the Civil War)” (Boston Publishing Company, 2014, p. 5). President Lincoln signed the bill and the Navy Medal of Honor was born. Two months later on 15 February 1862, Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts introduced a similar bill, this one to authorize the President to distribute medals to “such Non-Commissioned Officers and Privates as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action and other soldier-like qualities during the present insurrection (the Civil War)” (Browning, 1896, p. 88). President Abraham Lincoln signed S.J.R. No. 82 into law as 12 Stat. 623-624 on 12 July 1862, and thus, the Army Medal of Honor was born.

Now, prior to the introduction of the Navy’s MoH in 1861, President George Washington established the first combat decoration in United States history. The award was named the Badge of Military Merit, and it wasn’t long after the American Revolutionary War that the award fell into disuse. Down the road, during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), the successor to President Washington’s Badge of Military Merit, the Certificate of Merit, was created and bestowed to those who presented exceptional and distinguishing gallantry. However, it too quickly fell into disuse after the close of the war. In 1861, when the American Civil War began, a new medal was proposed to Gen. Winfield Scott, General-in-Chief of the Union Army at the time. However, Gen. Scott scoffed at the proposal as too European. It was only after Gen. Scott retired from service that support for a new medal found its way to Congress. In 1863, Congress approved the medal as a permanent decoration, and Officers became eligible for the award on the 3rd of March that same year.

On July 25,1963 Congress established a set of guidelines under which the Medal of Honor could be awarded. Public Law 88-77 set requirements for the Medal of Honor to be standardized among all the services, requiring that a recipient had “distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.” The act also clarified that the act of valor must occur during one of three circumstances:

  1. while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States;
  2. while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force; or,
  3. while serving with friendly forces engaged in armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party.

To date, there have been 3,512 recipients of the Medal of Honor, and just under half of all were bestowed during the Civil War. The actions by individuals distinguishing characteristics fitting the criteria for nomination and authorization of the MoH are of such selfless high esteem and valor, that even amongst the bravest of citations, the authorization to present the Medal of Honor can only be characterized as “reserved” at best. Furthermore, while a nomination may be made through the individuals Chain of Command or by Congress, at least two independent accounts by persons other than the individual must cite actions of such heroism as to distinguish the individuals actions deserving of the award. To get an idea of such gallantry and bravery that even qualifies for nomination, a few past examples include:

During the Civil War, the job of color bearer was one of the most hazardous as well as important duties in the Army. Soldiers looked to the flag for direction and inspiration in battle and the bearer was usually out in front, drawing heavy enemy fire while holding the flag high. On Nov. 16, 1863, regimental color bearer Pvt. Joseph E. Brandle, from the 17th Michigan Infantry, participated in a battle near Lenoire, Tenn. “…[H]aving been twice wounded and the sight of one eye destroyed, [he] still held to the colors until ordered to the rear by his regimental commander.” (Army.mil, 2015)

Cpl. Alvin C. York, from the 82nd Division, fearlessly engaged the numerically superior German force at Chatel-Chehery, France, on Oct. 8, 1918 – just a month before the armistice was signed. His citation reads: “…After his platoon had suffered heavy casualties and three other noncommissioned officers had become casualties, Cpl. York assumed command. Fearlessly leading seven men, he charged with great daring toward a machine gun nest, which was pouring deadly and incessant fire upon his platoon. In this heroic feat the machine gun nest was taken, together with four officers and 128 men and several guns.” (Army.mil, 2015)

According to his citation, 2nd Lt. Craig volunteered to defeat an enemy machine gun that three other officers before him could not. He quickly located the gun outside of Favoratta, Sicily, but without cover, he and his men found themselves vulnerable to approximately 100 enemies. “Electing to sacrifice himself so that his platoon might carry on the battle, he ordered his men to withdraw… while he drew the enemy fire to himself. With no hope of survival, he charged toward the enemy until he was within 25 yards of them. Assuming a kneeling position, he killed five and wounded three enemy soldiers. While the hostile force concentrated fire on him, his platoon reached the cover of the crest. 2nd Lt. Craig was killed by enemy fire, but his intrepid action so inspired his men that they drove the enemy from the area, inflicting heavy casualties on the hostile force.” (Army.mil, 2015)

Dr. Mary E. Walker – to this day – is the first – and only – woman to be bestowed with the MoH. Her citation reads, “Battle of Bull Run, July 21, 1861; Patent Office Hospital, Washington, D.C., October 1861; Chattanooga, Tenn., following Battle of Chickomauga, September 1863; Prisoner of War, April 10, 1864-August 12, 1864, Richmond, Va.; Battle of Atlanta, September 1864 Whereas it appears from official reports that Dr. Mary E. Walker, a graduate of medicine, “has rendered valuable service to the Government, and her efforts have been earnest and untiring in a variety of ways,” and that she was assigned to duty and served as an assistant surgeon in charge of female prisoners at Louisville, Ky., upon the recommendation of Major-Generals Sherman and Thomas, and faithfully served as contract surgeon in the service of the United States, and has devoted herself with much patriotic zeal to the sick and wounded soldiers, both in the field and hospitals, to the detriment of her own health, and has also endured hardships as a prisoner of war four months in a Southern prison while acting as contract surgeon; and Whereas by reason of her not being a commissioned officer in the military service, a brevet or honorary rank cannot, under existing laws, be conferred upon her; and Whereas in the opinion of the President an honorable recognition of her services and sufferings should be made: It is ordered, That a testimonial thereof shall be hereby made and given to the said Dr. Mary E. Walker, and that the usual medal of honor for meritorious services be given her. Given under my hand in the city of Washington, D.C., this 11th day of November, A.D. 1865. Andrew Johnson, President.” Furthermore, Dr. Walker was subjected to discrimination as her Medal was rescinded 1917 along with 910 others. However, it was rightfully restored by President Carter 10 June 1977. (CMOHS, 2015)

Navy Lt. John William Finn became the first MoH recipiant of WWII on Dec. 7, 1941. His citation reads, “For extraordinary heroism distinguished service, and devotion above and beyond the call of duty. During the first attack by Japanese airplanes on the Naval Air Station, Kaneohe Bay, on 7 December 1941, Lt. Finn promptly secured and manned a .50-caliber machinegun mounted on an instruction stand in a completely exposed section of the parking ramp, which was under heavy enemy machinegun strafing fire. Although painfully wounded many times, he continued to man this gun and to return the enemy’s fire vigorously and with telling effect throughout the enemy strafing and bombing attacks and with complete disregard for his own personal safety. It was only by specific orders that he was persuaded to leave his post to seek medical attention. Following first aid treatment, although obviously suffering much pain and moving with great difficulty, he returned to the squadron area and actively supervised the rearming of returning planes. His extraordinary heroism and conduct in this action were in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.” (CMOHS, 2015)

Let’s just think those citations over for a few minutes, shall we? Then, imagine trying to place yourself in the shoes of the individuals above at that time. Consider how saying someone “won” the nations highest and most distinguished Honor is more insulting than slapping them in the face, or spitting upon the citation itself. A quick look at the list of MoH recipients over its history shows that the Honor often comes posthumously, as the actions the individual took – while may have saved many lives in the process – came at the cost of their own. And yet, without regards for their own personal safety (in other words, with complete knowledge of most likely mortal courage), they acted selflessly regardless for the sake of others.

No… the Medal of Honor is not “won”… it is bestowed as the nations highest Honor, and should be respected, honored, and cherished as such. So the next time you hear someone on T.V., in the news, or even in-person use the word “won” when referring to the MoH, you might now have a bit of understanding and respect of the sheer courage the bravest of the brave displayed when they were nominated and presented the Medal of Honor… enough understanding, respect, and even a bit of courage yourself, to correct those who say such a thing. And, of course, the same goes for any military Valor award.

Today, 12 July 2015, let us take a few minutes to reflect on all those who received the Medal of Honor, and be thankful for their bravery.
Then, tell us your thoughts on the Medal of Honor in our comments below.

Here’s a few more facts about the Medal of Honor

There are four specific authorizing statutes, all amended July 25, 1963, covering authority and privileges of MoH recipients.

  1. Army: 10 U.S.C. § 3741
  2. Navy and Marine Corps: 10 U.S.C. § 6241
  3. Air Force: 10 U.S.C. § 8741
  4. Coast Guard: 14 U.S.C. § 491

The Medal of Honor confers special privileges on its recipients. By law, recipients have several benefits:

  • Each Medal of Honor recipient may have his or her name entered on the Medal of Honor Roll (38 U.S.C. § 1560). Each person whose name is placed on the Medal of Honor Roll is certified to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs as being entitled to receive a monthly pension above and beyond any military pensions or other benefits for which they may be eligible. The pension is subject to cost-of-living increases; as of December 1, 2012, it is $1,259 a month.
  • Enlisted recipients of the Medal of Honor are entitled to a supplemental uniform allowance.
  • Recipients receive special entitlements to air transportation under the provisions of DOD Regulation 4515.13-R. This benefit allows the recipient to travel as he or she deems fit across geographical locations, and allows the recipient’s dependents to travel either Overseas-Overseas, Overseas-Continental US, or Continental US-Overseas when accompanied by the recipient.
  • Special identification cards and commissary and exchange privileges are provided for Medal of Honor recipients and their eligible dependents.
  • Recipients are granted eligibility for interment at Arlington National Cemetery, if not otherwise eligible.
  • Fully qualified children of recipients are eligible for admission to the United States military academies without regard to the nomination and quota requirements.
  • Recipients receive a 10 percent increase in retired pay.
  • Those awarded the medal after October 23, 2002, receive a Medal of Honor Flag. The law specified that all 103 living prior recipients as of that date would receive a flag.
  • Recipients receive an invitation to all future presidential inaugurations and inaugural balls.
  • As with all medals, retired personnel may wear the Medal of Honor on “appropriate” civilian clothing. Regulations specify that recipients of the Medal of Honor are allowed to wear the uniform “at their pleasure” with standard restrictions on political, commercial, or extremist purposes (other former members of the armed forces may do so only at certain ceremonial occasions).
  • Most states (40) offer a special license plate for certain types of vehicles to recipients at little or no cost to the recipient. The states that do not offer Medal of Honor specific license plate offer special license plates for veterans for which recipients may be eligible.
  • Although not required by law or military regulation, members of the uniformed services are encouraged to render salutes to recipients of the Medal of Honor as a matter of respect and courtesy regardless of rank or status and, if the recipients are wearing the medal, whether or not they are in uniform. This is one of the few instances where a living member of the military will receive salutes from members of a higher rank.

While some may think these privileges “a lot”… remember, military “privileges” are earned… they are not “entitled” nor “given”… they are earned.

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Army.mil (2015). The United States Army: Medal of Honor. United States Army Official Website. Retrieved from: http://www.army.mil/medalofhonor/history.html

Boston Publishing Company, The Editors of (2014). The Medal of Honor: A History of Service Above and Beyond. Boston Publishing Company, Inc.

Browning, C. H. (1896). The American Historical Register. Vol. 3. The American Historical Register Publishing Company, Phliadelphia.

CMOHS.org (2015). Finn, John William. Congressional Medal of Honor Society Website. Retrieved from: http://www.cmohs.org/recipient-detail/2735/finn-john-william.php

CMOHS.org (2015). Walker, Dr. Mary E. Congressional Medal of Honor Society Website. Retrieved from: http://www.cmohs.org/recipient-detail/1428/walker-dr-mary-e.php

About the author

AJ Powell

AJ is a retired U.S. Army NCO who served in both the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army. He is a combat veteran, and has participated in contingency operations around the world. AJ is the Owner of Veteran Leadership Solutions, the Founder and Editor in Chief of The Warfighter Journal, and is a published Sociological Analyst, Researcher, Guest Lecturer, and Public Speaker. He is a graduate of Pennsylvania State University with a focus on Sociology and a science degree in Organizational Leadership, and is published in the field of sociology. AJ is an inductive analyst; public figure; researcher/writer; aviator; a certified advanced operational diver; professional instructor, trainer, mentor, and adviser; snowboarder; motorcycle rider; world traveler; he enjoys long distance endurance events, and much more.