A military-wide review of more than 1,300 combat valor decorations awarded for battlefield bravery and heroism since 9/11 will yield fewer than 100 upgrades, Military Times has learned.
Ordered by Defense Secretary Ash Carter a year ago, the review was intended in part to address criticism from combat veterans, historians and lawmakers who believe the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps have failed to appropriately recognize valorous acts throughout the war on terrorism. It has focused primarily on select awards of the Silver Star and the individual Service Crosses, which in the valor awards hierarchy rate second only to the Medal of Honor. The Navy Department, however, which oversees the Marine Corps, reconsidered some Bronze Star awards, too.
The Army, largest of all military services, continues to evaluate awards for possible upgrade but is poised to do so in at most 40 cases, according to officials with the service's Human Resources Command. Its review, which looked at 785 awards, is on schedule to be complete by the September deadline.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus "reviewed and approved more than 30 award upgrades" for sailors and Marines, a process that culminated in mid-November, according to a Navy official with knowledge of the results. Most, the official said, involve members of the elite Naval Special Warfare Command, which includes Navy SEALs and other specialized troops. The review reconsidered 425 awards. During separate ceremonies on Friday, officials presented 22 upgraded awards to personnel from both services. Additional upgraded awards are to be presented in coming weeks, the official said.
Air Force officials have recommended 12 upgrades after looking at 147 cases, said Maj. Brian Lewis, a spokesman at the Pentagon. That review also is on track to be complete by September.
In all, these 80-plus cases account for about 6 percent of the 1,357 flagged for review, a rate that's been met with mixed reaction from those who've followed the issue closest. It also is likely to raise questions about some of the cases that were reconsidered but ultimately unchanged.
"At first glance, it seems low," said Congressman Duncan Hunter, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine officer. A California Republican, he has advocated on behalf of fellow veterans who've had awards downgraded and, as a member of the House Armed Services Committee, has been among the most high-profile to declare the military awards process both flawed and politicized. Hunter said he intends to examine each of the services' findings, once they're complete and made public.
"The one major fact I keep going back to that blows my mind is not a single living person received the Medal of Honor for the Iraq war," the congressman told Military Times, referencing the exploits of a Marine officer, 1st Lt. Brian Chontosh, who received the Navy Cross for charging on foot through more than 200 yards of trench in Iraq. After depleting his own ammunition, Chontosh used discarded enemy weapons to kill more than 20 fighters who'd ambushed his Marines. "Let's see if they remedied that — because that's just absurd," Hunter added. "And let's see if they looked at some of the bigger cases, or if they just took the low-hanging fruit."
Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta was killed while covering an enemy grenade during house-to-house fighting in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004. His Medal of Honor nomination was downgraded to a Navy Cross. (File photo)
Another individual in whom Hunter has a particular interest is Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta, whose case has been mired in controversy since his death in Iraq in 2004. The Marine Corps nominated Peralta for the Medal of Honor after fellow Marines say he saved their lives in Fallujah by smothering a grenade. Four years later, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates denied the award after a forensics analysis concluded the 25-year-old — who was shot moments before the grenade blast — was unaware of his final act on the battlefield.
Peralta's case was reconsidered by the next two defense secretaries, Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel. Both sided with Gates, however, and in 2015, after first refusing a lesser award, Peralta's family accepted his Navy Cross.
Mabus has recommended two cases for upgrade to the Medal of Honor, he told USA Today late last year. Citing Defense Department policy, officials at the Pentagon would not disclose who those individuals are, whether they are alive or deceased, or from which conflict the nominations originated.
All Medal of Honor nominations must be endorsed by the defense secretary before being sent to the White House for final approval. A White House spokesman would not say whether any Medal of Honor nominations are pending with President Obama, who leaves office Friday.
"Here's why this is so hard and why the bureaucracy is so bad at this," Hunter said. "If you upgrade anyone's award, that means you're questioning the judgment of the people who turned it down the first time. So if you say 'Peralta rates the Medal of Honor,' that means you're saying that Panetta, Hagel and Gates were wrong. Nobody wants to offend or question the judgment of anyone prior to them lest in the future they get their judgment questioned too — or whatever games are played in the Pentagon."
President Barack Obama presents the Medal of Honor to Army Capt. William D. Swenson in October 2013 for actions four years prior during the Battle of Ganjgal, in Afghanistan's Kunar province. Gen. David Petraeus had sought to downgrade Swenson's award to the Distinguished Service Cross. (Army photo)
The questionable handling of one case nearly derailed a Medal of Honor nomination for Army Capt. William Swenson, who says he made "powerful enemies" within the military after assailing his commanders' decision to deny air support for Swenson's embedded training team during a deadly ambush in eastern Afghanistan's Ganjgal valley in September 2009. Four Marines and a Navy corpsman were killed in the battle along with eight Afghan troops. The incident caused a bitter rift between the Army and Marine Corps, whose leaders felt the Army commanders responsible for their troops abandoned them on the battlefield as the troops' pinned down by unrelenting enemy fire fought desperately to survive. Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyeralso was recognized with a Medal of Honor for his actions during the nine-hour encounter in Ganjgal, with two other Marines, Capt. Ademola Fabayoand Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, each receiving a Navy Cross. But Swenson's Medal of Honor nomination was lost for more than a yearafter Gen. David Petraeus, then commander of all U.S. forces in Afghanistan, recommended the award be downgraded. An inspector general's investigation, prompted by Hunter's office, found no evidence anyone deliberately mishandled or sought to delay the soldier's nomination. Yet Hagel felt compelled nonetheless to offer Swenson a public apology in 2013.
There's also the case of Army Sgt. 1st Class Earl Plumlee. During an attack on his outpost in Ghazni in August 2013, Plumlee killed several insurgents who'd entered the base. Despite his own wounds, sustained when an attacker detonated a suicide vest, Plumlee braved enemy fire to aid other injured Americans and provide cover fire enabling his fellow soldiers to safely escape the attack.
But his Medal of Honor nomination — approved by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan at the time, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford — was knocked down to a Silver Star. He became the subject of an Army criminal probe after he was accused of trying to sell an illegal rifle scope online. The investigation resulted in no charges. Some Army leaders worried how Plumlee, described as standout soldier with a reputation for challenging authority and political correctness, would "present in public." Others were said to dislike the fact he had served in the Marines before becoming a Green Beret.
"Politics shouldn't play during war. Period. Actions taken on the battlefield should stand alone," Hunter said, adding that "a lot of the awards process has been viewed through the lens of the current administration and going back to President Bush, too."
To date, there have been 14 Medals of Honor awarded for heroism in Afghanistan and four for gallantry in Iraq. The majority — 13 — were awarded by President Barack Obama during his eight years in office, time that included the withdrawal of U.S. forces from one theater and a significant escalation in the other. All 13 were for actions in Afghanistan, with 11 going to personnel who survived the harrowing battles for which they were recognized.
Obama's predecessor, President George W. Bush, awarded five Medals of Honor: four for actions in Iraq and one for Afghanistan. All were presented posthumously.
Still, 40 percent of active-duty service members polled in December said they believe Obama was less likely to recognize individual battlefield valor. The results of that survey, conducted by Military Times and Syracuse University's Institute for Veterans and Military Families, also found that more than half of respondents had an unfavorable opinion of Obama overall, with just 36 percent saying they approve of his job as commander in chief.
In announcing the review last January, the Pentagon insisted there is no reason to believe valor in Afghanistan and Iraq has been under-recognized. Data might suggest otherwise, however. Since the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, the Medal of Honor has been awarded at its lowest rate in 100 years, a recent Military Times analysis found.
Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe died in November 2005, less than a month after heroically extracting his fellow soldiers from a burning Bradley Fighting Vehicle outside Daliaya, Iraq. (Army photo)
Author and historian Doug Sterner, a Vietnam combat veteran who curates Military Times' Hall of Valor database, is eager to learn the fate of one case in particular: that of Army Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn C. Cashe. In October 2005, despite suffering severe burns when his Bradley Fighting Vehicle was set on fire by a roadside bomb outside Daliaya, Iraq, the 35-year-old returned to the wreckage again and again, rescuing all six of his soldiers before he was evacuated from the battlefield.
Cashe died from his wounds three weeks later. And for his selflessness and bravery that day, the Army awarded him a Silver Star.
Sterner, Hunter and other critics have for several years argued that Cashe is one of many Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans whose heroism probably would have earned them Medals of Honor in past wars. "What I'm really going to be looking at," Sterner said, "is the process itself. Does the Army include Alwyn Cashe? To me, that will demonstrate they have a historical understanding of what a Medal of Honor action is."
Another glaring disparity, Sterner said, is the lack of even a single Medal of Honor for any Air Force personnel dating to 9/11. The service's senior leaders have indicatedthere are at least two names who appear to meet the necessary criteria: Robert Gutierrezand Dustin Temple, both combat controllers recognized with Air Force Crosses for extraordinary lifesaving actions in Afghanistan.
In 2009, Gutierrez, then a staff sergeant, was with a special forces team targeting a Taliban commander in Herat province, along the Iranian border. When they came under fire, Gutierrez first covered for a soldier whose weapon had jammed. Moments later a rooftop shooter hit Gutierrez in the shoulder. The airman fired back, killing the man, before sinking to the ground unable to breathe. His lung had collapsed. A battlefield medic jammed a syringe in his chest to relieve pressure, allowing Gutierrez to radio for airstrikes before seeking his own evacuation.
Staff Sgt. Robert Gutierrez, Air Force Cross recipient and combat controller, poses with Sgt. 1st Class Mike Jones, the Army medic who saved Gutierrez' life during a 2009 mission in Afghanistan. (Air Force photo)
During a hellish 2014 battle in Helmand province, Temple, a senior airman, repeatedly braved enemy fire to direct a flurry of airstrikes that halted more than 100 Taliban from overrunning his special forces team. He's credited with saving the lives of more than 80 American and Afghan troops.
Sterner in the past has highlighted two other Air Force Cross recipients deserving of the highest recognition: Tech. Sgt. John Chapman and Senior Airman Jason Cunningham. Both men were killed in action in 2002 and posthumously recognized for their actions during the Battle of Robert's Ridge in Gardez, Afghanistan.
Contrary to the congressman, Sterner says he's encouraged by the numbers — particularly the Navy and Marines' decision to relook at some Bronze Star awards. That suggests the effort was comprehensive, he said. Will the review right every wrong? Probably not, Sterner said. But this feels like progress, he added.
"Everybody who has ever served in any type of combat probably witnessed some action that either went unrecognized or under-recognized," Sterner said. "There's no doubt the Defense Department won't make everyone happy. But I was surprised when the review was announced, and overall the numbers are better than what I expected. I'm pretty pleased."
Andrew deGrandpre is Military Times' senior editor and Pentagon bureau chief. On Twitter: @adegrandpre. Mark D. Faram is a senior staff writer for Navy Times. On Twitter: @scribe4squids. Jeff Schogol is a senior staff writer for Marine Corps Times. On Twitter: @JeffSchogol. Michelle Tan is editor of Army Times and Air Force Times. On Twitter: @mtan32.