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December 10, 2021

The Stuff of a Singular Medal

There is nothing so essentially American as the Medal of Honor.

Words suffice for most purposes, but sometimes they fail us — for example, when the topic at hand is the Medal of Honor. So exceedingly rare are those who’ve earned our nation’s highest award for military valor, and so utterly remarkable are their actions on behalf of others, that they tend to defy a fitting description. Anyone who doubts this need only consider the stories of some of the awardees. You might start with Roy Benavidez, who received the Medal from Ronald Reagan in 1981. And then you might read about some of the American heroes previously profiled by our Mark Alexander: Desmond Doss, Charles Coolidge, Emil Kapaun, Ralph Puckett, Chuck Hagemeister, Clifford Sims, and Leo Thorsness.

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty: This string of words forms the introduction of every Medal of Honor citation. Taken together, they set an incredibly high bar, and, more often than not, a posthumous one — especially for those in the enlisted ranks. An exact number isn’t available, but it’s estimated that 60% of all Medals have been awarded for actions that demanded the ultimate sacrifice.

Two such posthumous awards will be presented in the days ahead by President Joe Biden in the name of Congress: one to Army Sergeant 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, who succumbed to his injuries after repeatedly rescuing fellow soldiers from a burning vehicle in 2005; and one to Sergeant 1st Class Christopher Celiz, an Army Ranger who in 2018 put himself between Taliban fighters and a U.S. helicopter that was evacuating his fellow soldiers.

In addition, Biden will award the Medal to a living recipient: Army Master Sergeant Earl Plumlee, a Special Forces soldier who almost singlehandedly fought off a complex attack by Taliban suicide bombers in Afghanistan in 2013.

Since its authorization in 1861, more than 3,400 Medals have been awarded in our nation’s history to men black, brown, and white — 1,523 of them during the Civil War, when the Medal was introduced, and far fewer ever since, as the criteria for awarding it became more demanding and the process more painstaking. Just 126 Medals, for example, were awarded for actions during World War I, and while more than 16 million Americans wore the uniform during World War II, just 472 of them merited the Medal of Honor.

As for those stringent criteria, the Congressional Medal of Honor Society defines them:

All recommendations require thorough reports on the act itself, the battlefield and its setting; at least two sworn eyewitness statements; and any other compelling evidence that can be gathered. Recommendation packets must be approved all the way up the military command structure, ending with the United States president as the commander-in-chief.

By federal statute, recommendations for the Medal must be submitted within three years of the valorous act, and the Medal must be presented within five years. Any submissions outside of this timeline require an act of Congress to waive the time limits.

The Medal of Honor has three variations: one for the Army; one for the Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard; and one for the Air Force. These designs have been largely unaltered since their inception, and they embody those rare intersections of happenstance, heroism, and hell. The Medal’s recipients tend to think of themselves as caretakers of it, and while they may grudgingly acknowledge having earned it, they’ll never speak of having won it.

Consider the humble mindset of Navy Corpsman George Wahlen, who went from one wounded Marine to another on Iwo Jima while somehow managing to avoid being sawed in half: “In my prayer, I always asked the Lord, ‘If there’s anything at all you can do, please don’t let me let one of my buddies down.’”

During the course of your lifetime, you’re about as likely to see a man with that pale blue ribbon around his neck as you are a ghost. We see them on TV on occasion, at presidential inaugurations and State of the Union addresses, but that’s about it. Just 66 Medal of Honor recipients are still with us today, and only one of them, Hershel “Woody” Williams, who earned his Medal as a flamethrower on Iwo Jima, is a veteran of World War II.

These men, these heroes, are far fewer than one in a million. But they seem to embody a similar quality. As Nicky Bacon, a Vietnam veteran and Medal of Honor recipient, put it, “They never sought recognition, yet it came to them, often inexplicably, in settings where men all around them were being slaughtered.”

The man and the moment were of course essential, but what made these few so brave when all others around them were less so? “Pericles, the great Athenian statesman,” writes historian Victor Davis Hanson, “gives us further guidance about their valor, saying that true courage is the willingness to give up all that is dear when living is most precious.”

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