Long delays for Medals of Honor draw criticism
Washington - When President Barack Obama drapes the Medal of Honor around the neck of Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts on Monday, it will symbolize all of the heroism and sacrifice that occurred in a ferocious battle in Afghanistan. But it will represent something else, too: a dramatic rise in the amount of time it takes for troops to be honored with the nation's highest award for combat valor.
Pitts, of Nashua, N.H., will receive the award six years and eight days after holding off an enemy assault on his platoon's hillside observation post in Afghanistan's Nuristan province. He did so even though he was wounded badly enough that a fellow soldier had to put a tourniquet on his leg to control the bleeding, Army officials say.
The amount of time between his actions and his ceremony at the White House will be the second longest for any service member awarded the Medal of Honor for actions after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. It is surpassed only by Army Sgt. Kyle White, who received the medal May 13, more than 6½ years after he braved enemy fire numerous times in a Nov. 7, 2007, battle in Nuristan after he was briefly knocked unconscious by a rocket-propelled grenade blast.
Obama has awarded the Medal of Honor twice as often as his predecessor for actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Still, the prolonged approval process has drawn fire on Capitol Hill, in the military and from experts who track military awards and see a broken system.
"That is bureaucratic ineptness, is all that is," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine. "It's probably armchair generals who are afraid of their own shadows that just don't want to do the right thing. It shouldn't take six years. In fact, I think it's a travesty when these guys don't get their awards when they're still on active duty."
Before President George W. Bush left office early in 2009, he awarded five Medals of Honor for actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, all posthumously to recipients who died from injuries sustained while earning the award. Bush took criticism in the military for not once decorating a living service member with the Medal of Honor, but the medals he did award came relatively quickly - about two years each, or 736 days on average.
Pitts will be the 11th post-9/11 service member to receive the Medal of Honor from Obama. Nine of the awards have gone to living recipients, but those cases have taken an average of nearly four years - 1,443 days - to conclude. The president also has awarded two posthumous awards, which took about three years each.
Combined, Bush and Obama have issued the award to 11 soldiers, three Marines and two sailors, both of whom were posthumous recipients and Navy SEALs. The living recipients include seven soldiers and two Marines.
The discrepancy in the number of Medals of Honor bestowed by Bush and Obama is probably a function of U.S. military commanders gradually warming up to the idea that their troops may deserve the award as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have progressed, said Doug Sterner, an Army veteran and military historian who is widely recognized for his tracking of military awards.
"In World War II, the top commanders were in World War I. They understood the process and they knew heroism when they saw it," Sterner said. "The same goes for the top commanders in Vietnam, who served in Korea. The top commanders in Iraq didn't have that."
At the same time, the awards process simply takes a lot longer now than it did previously. Sterner cited the awards that President Bill Clinton gave posthumously on May 23, 1994, to Army Master Sgt. Gary Gordon and Army Sgt. 1st Class Randall Shughart as one example.
The two men were killed Oct. 3, 1993, in Somalia while defending a Black Hawk helicopter and the injured pilot inside, then-Chief Warrant Officer 3 Michael Durant. Gordon and Shughart received the Medal of Honor less than eight months after their heroic actions. Durant was taken prisoner, but released 11 days later.
A White House spokesperson referred questions for this story to the military, saying it was a Defense Department issue.
Pentagon officials said it can be difficult to gather the "incontestable proof" needed for the Medal of Honor. That's especially the case, they said, when there are few witnesses or when the potential recipient and others present have been evacuated from the battlefield after sustaining severe wounds.
Pitts' actions came in a controversial and bloody battle that killed nine U.S. troops and wounded 27 others. The classification of documents associated with the Battle of Wanat increased the difficulty of assessing his actions and required special handling of his award documentation, Army officials said in a written response to questions.
White's case also was complicated by the need for more information and inquiries, the Army said, without elaborating.
The Marine Corps, which has faced scrutiny for awarding just three Medals of Honor for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan, is confident that its policies for awarding heroism are fair and consistent, including on prestigious awards such as the Medal of Honor, said Lee Freund, head of the service's awards branch.
Army officials are still smarting from the way the Medal of Honor case for Capt. William Swenson was botched. The infantry officer received the award Oct. 15, 2013, for braving enemy fire repeatedly in eastern Afghanistan's Ganjgal Valley on Sept. 8, 2009, to pull a fellow soldier who had sustained a gunshot from a kill zone, and then search for four service members who had been killed.
Swenson received the Medal of Honor more than four years after the battle - and only after his digital nomination packet went missing in Afghanistan. He was first recommended for the award by a battalion commander in December 2009, but it was subsequently recommended for a downgrade by Army Gen. David Petraeus, according to the findings of a Defense Department inspector general investigation. The package never received additional processing.
Swenson's case was submitted for review again in July 2011, as the military prepared to award a Medal of Honor to another service member in the battle, Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyer. Swenson refused to accept his award until the Army investigated what happened, and he received a public apology from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last year.
The mistakes led to Army Secretary John McHugh implement a new policy in which the Army's awards branch must follow up with a soldier's chain of command every 30 days after he has been recommended for the Medal of Honor.
Hagel, an infantryman who served in Vietnam, also called for a full joint review of the military's awards process in March, saying in a letter to senior officers that he wants to make sure the military "adequately recognizes all levels of combat valor." The inquiry also will determine how best to recognize drone operators, cyber-warfare personnel and others who affect events on the battlefield.
The review, which did not begin until last month, will assess lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan to make sure service members are adequately awarded for their actions, said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman. It is expected to take about a year.
Washington Post staff writer David Nakamura contributed to this report.
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