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Honor roles: Modern wars offer fewer opportunities to earn top military valor medals

Sep. 11, 2013 - 01:23PM   |  
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With the war in Afghanistan winding down and with it the window of opportunity for today’s troops to add combat valor awards to their ribbon array, it’s time to write up history’s first draft on this generation’s most highly decorated war heroes.

It’s not as simple as just embracing the list of 11 service members who have received the Medal of Honor. Discussions about the “most highly decorated” must include those who have earned more than one of the nation’s highest valor awards.

How many warriors of the post-9/11 era showed the kind of courage and bravery it takes to receive one of the nation’s highest combat valor medals — and waded back into the fight to perform another standout act of heroism in view of witnesses and supported by leaders who bothered to write up an award nomination?

The answer: Not many. A search of the Military Times Hall of Valor database turns up only 10 service members who have pinned on more than one of the nation’s most prestigious combat medals — a Medal of Honor, a service cross or a Silver Star.

The list highlights a lesser- known cadre of war heroes than the traditional Medal of Honor roll while also underscoring some quirky and often overlooked cultural aspects of how medals are awarded — and to whom. Some are infantrymen. More than a few are special operators. Combat medics are in the mix. And one is a helicopter pilot.

That would be Army Chief Warrant Officer 5 David Cooper, whose years of flying helicopter gunships on close-air support missions for special operations teams under the hairiest conditions have earned him one of the most lavish racks of heavyweight medals in recent history: Distinguished Service Cross, Army Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star and Distinguished Flying Cross.

Somewhat surprisingly, only one of the 10 combat vets on the list received the Medal of Honor, mainly because most have been awarded posthumously, including seven of the 11 awarded since 2001.

What’s more, in today’s military, receiving the Medal of Honor is something of a career-ender; once a recipient is summoned to the White House and bestowed with a gold medallion, he’ll probably never again get operational assignments, instead likely serving as a sort of high-profile ambassador for his service and its mission.

Another prominent feature of this list is its lack of Marines. While the Hall of Valor database shows dozens of Marines have earned one of the top three medals, none has earned more than one, raising questions about whether the service branches impose different standards in their own approval processes for top valor medals.

Fewer opportunities

Experts say the small number of combat troops who have earned more than one of the top three valor medals — which could total more than 10 when classified spec ops missions are considered — reflects the rapidly evolving nature of modern warfare.

“I don’t think there is as much likelihood that a person can go to Iraq or Afghanistan and find himself in that situation where he can go out and perform acts of gallantry like they used to,” said Nick McDowell, a member of the Orders and Medals Society of America. “That doesn’t say anything about lack of courage; it’s just a different kind of conflict.”

The data bear that out. This generation of war fighters has received far fewer medals than their fathers and grandfathers. Since 2001, the Pentagon has approved 11 Medals of Honor, compared to 248 during the Vietnam War. Seventy-two service crosses have been awarded since 9/11, compared to 1,067 in the relatively short Korean War.

But even in lesser numbers, valor medals today serve a purpose similar to those handed out in conflicts going back to the American Revolution: a way to honor and recognize courage in the face of danger, to let other service members know where you’ve been and what you’ve done.

“They’re like wearing your resume on your chest,” said Kim Hanson, a military sociologist at Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland.

Yet the top valor honors for the most remarkable acts of bravery are sufficiently rare that they may not serve as much of a motivating force on the battlefield.

Ask them why they did what they did to earn that medal, and “they’ll say ‘You know, I was pissed off, I was mad because my buddy got shot, and I thought, ‘I’m not going to let these sons of bitches take us down,’ ” said Fred Borch, a retired Army colonel and author who has written extensively about medals.

“They will never tell you, ‘I was doing it because I thought I might get an award,’ ” he said. It’s really all about ... helping your comrades survive and come home.”

Indeed, retired Navy Lt. Mark Donald, a former SEAL and combat medic who earned a Navy Cross and a Silver Star on separate occasions, said he feels something arbitrary about those moments — just a handful among his many years in combat — being recognized for such high honors.

“I never looked at [those acts] as being valorous or courageous ... I look at them as being something that needed to occur,” said Donald, who repeatedly provided life-saving medical care to comrades under withering enemy fire.

While Donald is proud of his service and the medals he earned, he says those honors are also fraught with emotions that many might find surprising — including guilt.

“I had a difficult time with those medals,” Donald said, adding that he thinks the awards themselves may have added to his combat stress. “When one person is singled out for an action it becomes very, very difficult to accept because that is contrary to everything you’re taught in the military. I felt like I never had the opportunity to say, ‘Here is what everybody else did.’

“I would have been dead in an instant if someone else had not been putting down suppressive fire or air support,” he said. “I never looked at what I did as being anything more than what any other SEAL or special operator would have done. And there were parts that I messed up ... ‘national hero’ Mark Donald probably could have done things differently and saved a lot more lives. Those things haunted me.”

The Marine Corps gap

The conspicuous absence of Marines among the list of 10 warriors who have multiple high-level valor medals may reflect a culture that holds the bar exceptionally high for such awards.

Borch pointed out that legendary Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Chesty Puller — awarded five Navy Crosses before his retirement in 1955 — never received a Medal of Honor.

“I think the Marines are very conservative,” Borch said. “I think that the Marine culture is such that the Marine Corps expects every Marine to commit acts of bravery without getting any recognition.”

But in truth, high-level medals are rare these days among all the services compared to past wars. The total number of Medals of Honor, service crosses and Silver Stars awarded for duty in Iraq and Afghanistan is just 5 percent of the total for the Vietnam War, although troop levels in Vietnam were far higher than even the peaks of U.S. deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some wonder whether the increasing rarity of these medals within the ranks diminishes their value in military culture.

“It’s very important for the GIs to be able to occasionally see somebody with a Medal of Honor or Distinguished Service Cross,” McDowell said. “If they are awarded so seldom that they’re never seen, then what are they?”

Yet even in smaller numbers, the medals still carry extraordinary prestige — even as many of the warriors who wear them are reluctant to take personal credit for the honor.

“It’s hard for me to look at some of these awards and not wonder why the guy sitting right next to me didn’t receive the same thing. We were both in the same ... danger,” said Cooper, the Army helicopter pilot. “I didn’t really look at them as individual achievements. I think I received those awards on behalf of all the soldiers who I was working alongside, especially those who were not able to come home.”

Trying to pile up valor medals, Cooper said, is not something to which young troops should adopt as a goal.

“I would never want to be in a foxhole next to a guy who says, ‘I want to win the Medal of Honor today.’ That guy is not going to have a good day. You don’t have to go out searching for those days. They’ll come to you.”

Military Times Hall of Valor curator Doug Sterner contributed to this story.

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