Sorting through Problems with Our Highest Award
The military awards and decorations system is broken. The Medal of Honor (MoH) is the prime example because of service agendas, insider influence, and political patronage.
But we should remember that MoH recipients do not make the rules, although a few have influenced them. Eddie Rickenbacker lobbied Congress for years before receiving his.
Only in 1963 did the Department of Defense adopt a unified standard for all services. Presently, the requirement is for combat with an enemy of the United States in which the recipient “distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.”
So what exactly is considered “above and beyond”?
Of the dozen or so MoH men I’ve known, few considered that they had done anything exceptional. “Washington needed a hero,” said one, while another conceded, “Most of us were just in the right place at the right time.” About 100 aviation-related MoHs have been awarded since 1918. Dozens more could have been presented.
Consider the following case:
Near Bremen, Germany, in November 1943, a 303rd Bomb Group B-17 was stricken by flak, severely wounding Staff Sgt. Joseph Sawicki. Despite the loss of his left arm, he tended two waist gunners, who had multiple wounds. The 20-year-old flier buckled chest-pack parachutes to both men, dragged them to the exit, opened the hatch, and shoved them overboard. Both survived. Joe Sawicki did not.
Upon liberation, the surviving crewmen submitted recommendations that Sawicki receive the MoH. The U.S. Army lost the first set of papers, so the crew
resubmitted them two years later. The Army apparently bungled that set, too. Nonetheless, the pilot, Lt. Carl Fyler, fought a decades-long battle with the Army bureaucracy to get Sawicki something more than the Purple Heart. In 2009, Fyler died frustrated and angry—Big Army consistently found excuses to ignore or refuse the request.
Against all logic, the Army retains control of who receives the MoH for the Army Air Force (AAF) from World War II. One Army aviator who earned the MoH in Vietnam said, “If the blue suits had control, that young man would have [received] the Medal long ago.”
One excuse the Army trotted out is that the MoH requires a living witness. Both gunners Sawicki saved died in the 1970s, but the military’s aversion to awarding the MoH to him does not stand up. Numerous MoHs have been awarded to deceased soldiers from WW I and the Civil War without living witnesses. Clearly there’s something more at work here—apparently a deep-rooted institutional inability to admit a scandalous wrong.
Other valorous actions received service crosses from WW II through Vietnam and into the present, although the Air Force seems prejudiced against non-pilots. Frequent Flight Journal contributor Robert F. Dorr notes, “No airman has yet received the nation’s top award for valor for action in Afghanistan, but Robert Gutierrez’s combat action is similar to two actions by enlisted airmen in Southeast Asia in the 1960s that earned the top award.”
In October 2009, Air Force Staff Sgt. Gutierrez clearly went above and beyond in Afghanistan. As a combat controller attached to a Green
Beret team hunting a Taliban commander, he recorded a feat that puts many MoH actions in the shade.
Amid a four-hour firefight, Gutierrez personally killed enemy fighters and repeatedly called in A-10s “danger close.” Despite grievous wounds—
he lost half his blood and sustained a collapsed lung—the controller stayed in the fight. Although lapsing in and out of consciousness, he remained on the radio, directing jets for his heavily outnumbered team, averting any American deaths. He spent nearly two years recovering and finally received the Air Force Cross.
The MoH has been awarded for vastly less.
Military historian and critic John Gresham says, “The first requirement for a Medal of Honor should not be a death certificate.” But that was, in fact, the requirement under President George W. Bush, who presented no MoHs to living recipients for Afghanistan or Iraq.
What to do?
The military services cannot be trusted to apply criteria equitably or fairly, so Congress must get involved. Especially urgent is giving WW II airmen a fair chance, so Congress needs to free the Air Force from the Army’s onerous control over AAF medals.
It’s the very least we can do for men who died for their comrades or risked death or capture by pitiless enemies.
by Barrett Tillman