A Medal Muddled in Politics

Back in 2004, Sergeant Rafael Peralta led his Marines into the fight for Fallujah—America’s most deadly house-to-house battle in Iraq. Sergeant Peralta died that day, and was awarded a Navy Cross—the nation’s second highest honor—after nearly a decades long battle with the Medal of Honor Committee
(MOHC), and the Department of Defense (DoD). The battle for Sergeant Peralta’s medal encompassed an independent investigation by the MOHC., which was spurred by the DoD Secretary rescinding his recommendation for Sergeant Peralta to receive the medal. What became evident out of the decade-long debacle, accompanied by the lowest rate of MOHs awarded for the nation’s longest wars, is that the medal has become increasingly muddled in politics.

The Actions of a Hero

Prior to the battle, as the Marines sat outside the banks of Fallujah, U.S. plane’s dropped leaflets with a basic statement: anyone who stays in the city is considered an insurgent. Ensued was days-long of deadly house-to-house combat, routine explosions of hidden improvised explosive devices (IED), and an overwhelming victory for the Marines.

Not every Marine would make it out of Fallujah with his life; but, certainly every Marine showed honor, courage, and commitment as they fought with the kind of tenacity never before seen in modern warfare. Sergeant Peralta became a hero that day, along with others. Doing what they’ve done for days now, Sergeant Peralta led a group of Marines into a house without initial contact. Upon reaching the second door opening, however, Sergeant Peralta was shot multiple times in the chest at point-blank range by the enemies AK-47. Marines hit the walls to return fire, while Sergeant Peralta fell to the ground, face-down. As the firefight continued, an enemy threw a grenade into the room full of Marines. Without hesitation, Sergeant Peralta extended his arm, grabbed the grenade, and tucked the grenade into his chest. Consequently, Sergeant Peralta absorbed the blast of the grenade and saved the lives of his Marines, while selflessly giving his.

That day, Sergeant Peralta would live in infamy.

Understanding the MOH

The Medal of Honor is the nation’s highest honor, where the criteria is vague: voluntary bravery or selfless sacrifice beyond the call-of-duty. Given the MOH’s prestige, the award rate is small. Indeed, the aggregate number of MOHs awarded in America’s existence is only 3,468; of those, almost 20% were awarded posthumously, or 621.

The Civil War had some of the fiercest fighting in American history. Thus, it accounted for the highest amount of MOHs awarded at 1,522. It is important to note, though, that the medals awarded arising out of the Civil War has disproportionately gone to northern fighters. Arguably, this was the first sign of politics in the medal arena.

The next wars to have the highest amount of MOHs awarded after the Civil War were WWII, Korea, and Vietnam: WWII accounts for 464 MOH awards, of those 266 were posthumous; Korea accounts for 133, 95 of which were posthumous; Vietnam—now the U.S.’s second longest war—accounts for 246, 154 of which were posthumous.

The Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns account for 6 MOH awards combined,

The Problem is Politics; Not Heroics

With the drastic drop-off of MOH’s awarded in Iraq and Afghanistan, many questions come to the surface: Has America’s fighting spirit dwindled? Has the American Warrior died off? Or, can we contribute the drop-off to the increase in technology at war?

All are good questions, and all are answered in the negative. Instead, the Pentagon politics have posed the greatest challenge to the American Warrior, and has effectively diluted the prestige of America’s highest honor.

In Sergeant Peralta’s case, the investigation concluded that he was already dead, and did not consciously grab the grenade and tuck under his chest. Rather, the investigation found that those movements were part of post-mortem movements, thus negating the “voluntary” criteria. However, there is no science to-date providing evidence that the body is capable of fine motor skills in a post-mortem state, like those exhibited by Sergeant Peralta. Additionally, in an unprecedented move, the DoD Secretary at the time rescinded his recommendation for Sergeant Peralta to receive the MOH. Furthermore, the timeline and depth of investigation associated with Peralta’s case is the only one in history, and conflicts with time restraints on awarding the medal. Therefore, only one conclusion can be asserted: likely, forces existed that did not want Sergeant Peralta to receive the MOH.

Sergeant Peralta is not the only case. A plethora of cases have been held up, tabled, or completely removed on specious arguments. Further, recent years have seen flocks of veterans’ advocates testifying before congress about too much caution in the award system. Indeed, the system is so defunct, the Pentagon was charged with reviewing the entire award system to ensure proper recognition is given. Many suspect the politically charged Pentagon and military commands are placing extrinsic evidence of the prospective awardee, over their intrinsic actions of bravery in battle.

Unfortunately, the findings—whether good or bad—will do little to change the defunct system. But, one thing is clear: a generation of American Warriors have exemplified bravery and selfless sacrifice in battle. Nevertheless, politics at all levels has substantially curbed the number of MOH recipients, while simultaneously doing a disservice to those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for freedom.

Authored by: Jonathan J. Cianfaglione