Missing Medal of Honor Awards for Iraq Veterans

By James C. Roberts
President, American Veterans Center
As appears in the September 16 edition of the Wall Street Journal

On Aug. 26, Army Staff Sergeant Ty Michael Carter received the Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony. The 33-year-old husband and father of three was given the nation’s highest military award for braving enemy fire to carry a wounded comrade to safety during a fierce battle in eastern Afghanistan on Oct. 3, 2009.

The award is cause for renewed pride in today’s military. It also invites reflection on the extraordinary actions of the 80 living recipients of the Medal of Honor whose service spans more than six decades, from World War II to Afghanistan. So far, however, that list does not include Iraq.

Four posthumous Medals of Honor awards have been presented to the families of men who were killed in Iraq. But the absence of awards for living veterans of that war is a grave injustice. It is time for remedial action.

Consider: 119 Medals of Honor have been awarded for service in World War I, 467 for World War II, 137 for the Korean War, and 249 for Vietnam. Two soldiers who died in Somalia in 1993 and eight who fought in Afghanistan received the award (three of them posthumously). Yet for Iraq—a conflict that lasted for almost a decade in which more than 1.5 million men and women served, 32,230 were wounded, and 4,489 died—there have been only four awards, and none to living veterans.

In 2009, there were no living Medal of Honor recipients from either the Iraq or Afghanistan wars. That changed after then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said in a Pentagon Press Conference that it was a source of real concern that that none of the more than 2.5 million servicemen and women who had seen combat in those conflicts had merited the honor.

The military responded by awarding five Medals for extraordinary service to living veterans of Afghanistan – all well deserved. Yet American service members have also fought bravely and with determination in harsh conditions in Fallujah, Ramadi, Mosul and elsewhere in Iraq. They lived through some of the fiercest combat since Vietnam, and these veterans displayed extraordinary valor and selfless sacrifice.

Take the case of Marine Sergeant Major Bradley Kasal. On Nov. 13, 2004, then-1stSgt. Kasal entered an enemy-occupied building in Fallujah, a death trap dubbed the “House of Hell” by the Marines, to assist comrades who were pinned down. Under heavy fire, he killed an insurgent in the first moments of the battle, and while assisting a wounded Marine was hit by seven rounds of small-arms fire. He was seriously wounded but used the limited bandages available to treat the other Marine, leaving his own wounds unattended.

When the insurgents lobbed a grenade at them, 1stSgt. Kasal rolled on top of the wounded Marine, absorbing the force of the blast and incurring 43 shrapnel wounds. He refused to get medical attention or leave the house until the other Marines were safe. The picture snapped of Kasal staggering from the house, pistol gripped in his right hand, supported by two fellow Marines, his uniform soaked with blood, became the most iconic photo of the Iraq war.

In 2006, Sgt. Maj. Kasal received the Navy Cross—the second highest award for valor. Does anyone seriously contend that he would not be a worthy recipient of the Medal of Honor?

The American Veterans Center has been privileged to host more than two-dozen recipients of the Medal of Honor. Despite their misgivings about being singled out, they have all become powerful exemplars of civic virtues in countless appearances before school, civic, military and religious groups.

Since 2006, our conferences also have honored at least as many veterans of Iraq. They are an extraordinary group. They, too, make a powerful impression on the audience, especially on the many students, cadets and midshipmen attending. But, lacking the cachet automatically conferred by the Medal of Honor, most of them will remain unknown to the larger American public.

The selection of Medal of Honor recipients is not an exact or scientific process. It involves judgment calls by those in the Defense Department chain of command. But it is never too late.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the war in Iraq. To use Lincoln’s famous phrase, it would be “altogether fitting and proper”—as well as just—if the president were to pay tribute to all of the 1.5 million veterans of that conflict by recognizing the first of the many deserving candidates with the Medal of Honor.

Mr. Roberts is president of the American Veterans Center.

original article in the WSJ