View Full Version : The Medal of Honor

12-05-2006, 20:00
DECEMBER 6, 2006

The Medal of Honor

Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee, it is a privilege for me to participate in this critical hearing regarding the Medal of Honor and other awards of valor. This is crucial to every man and woman who has worn the uniform of this great nation. It also counts to those who care about liberty and the pursuit of happiness of our free nation.

Winston Churchill once said: "Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities . . . because it is the quality which guarantees all others." When we award medals for valor, we are honoring the courage of patriotic men and women. It is the attribute of courage that is the essence of this nation, the building block for remaining virtues.

I wish to make three points:

One, medals are integral to success on the battlefield, resolve in war and purpose as a nation;

Two, recipients are not being recognized in a timely fashion or are being overlooked; and

Three, marginal modifications in the awards process are required and this process should be supervised by periodic Congressional oversight.

In my professional judgment, a critical function of any organization is to reward the significant contribution of a member in a timely fashion. Simply put, this is Management 101. Can there be a more vital contribution than to give one’s life so that others shall live? Established by an Act of Congress in 1863, the Medal of Honor has been held out for those who serve valiantly above and beyond the call of duty.

Mr. Chairman, I have been participant in combat, I have closely observed combatants, and I have been affected by combat personally. My time as a Marine in Vietnam and has given focus to my passion for life and directs me to this day to stand for truth, to challenge this nation to its best purpose, and to secure our legacy by protecting those who protect us.

Blood has been poured earning this honor. We must take every measure to protect the integrity that the Medal of Honor represents. However, the best of intentions can be lost in the web of cumbersome administrative processes, which I believe is the case of the Medal of Honor during the War on Terror. In trying to protect the award’s integrity, we end up diminishing it. There are many losers as a result of the tedious pace in which consideration for the Medal of Honor is made. They include courageous men and women, their peers and commanders, families and communities and, most importantly, our nation.

We apparently are losing our capacity to recognize true valor and this, I am certain, imperils the effectiveness and morale of our fighting forces.

Please consider these questions:

• Do we lack true heroes from the War on Terror?

• Is there something in our culture that paralyzes recognizing our bravest warriors?

• Are we afraid to honor the best among us?

Nearly forty years ago I wore the uniform of the United States Marine Corps. I fought alongside men Black and White, rich and poor, city kids and farm boys, in a place called Vietnam. At times it seemed like we were more like a gang that a smooth functioning military unit. I will assure you, though, that we never forgot that we were Marines.

There is, of course, legend surrounding the idea of the Marine Corps. Since I was a small boy, I looked up to Perry Brixey, my uncle, in his sharp Marine Corps uniform. I dreamed of being a Marine. He and his brother, Dwain, still another Marine, were larger than life. I knew that my Uncle Perry was a veteran of Guadalcanal and the hardest fighting in Korea. I would later learn that he served with a Medal of Honor winner.

It is our proud tradition that sustains us in the darkest moments of war, be it in on the blistering sands of Iwo Jima, the perimeter of Khe Sanh, or in the stark alleys of Fallujah.

Our uniforms may change but one thing remains the same. It is the Medal of Honor and the men who have worn it more than any other characteristic that links this generation of Marines with those of Vietnam, Korea, World War II, and before.

The Medal of Honor identifies and sanctions the heroes among us. As a warrior, I can tell you that it is recipients of this Medal that establish standards and norms of valor that will define us for the future.

The Medal represents the highest sacrifice that a man or woman can make for their country. It, more than anything else, reveals the true nature of a selfless person who is willing to put the safety of others first. More than half of the Medal’s recipients died during action for which they were cited. For Vietnam, 179 of the MOH awards were made posthumously.

Mr. Chairman, the Medal of Honor has become rare during the War on Terror. Have we no heroes? Could it be that the young men, some even kids, who fight today are unworthy of this honor?

I have read hundreds of MOH citations. The unifying characteristic is spontaneous action that successfully turns the course of battle and saves the lives of others. I say unplanned because I believe that this award is not won out of premeditation, but from a decision to take action at a moment in time. Something deep inside of us takes control. I cannot help but think of the words of Gulliaume Apollinaire, the French poet, who wrote: "Come to the edge, He said. They said: We are afraid. Come to the edge, He said. They came. He pushed them, And they flew . . ."

That said, I am certain that there are many service men and women who deserve the Medal of Honor but have failed to receive consideration. I certainly believe that there are many more deserving candidates than there are individuals who receive the Medal. I think back to the Tet invasion of 1968 where valor was commonplace in the Marine Corps and Army. Facing incredible odds, we defeated our enemy by any military measure. We fought until the ammunition was gone then fixed bayonets for the next charge. This was not Bunker Hill, but Vietnam 38 years ago.

In my own way, I am determined to use every ounce of my energy to ensure that the men and women of today’s armed forces do not endure the abuse and indignities that those in my generation still experience. For the record, my guys won the war in Vietnam. During seven years of fighting, we briefly lost control of only one urban area, Hue City in the north of the country. During the Tet offensive, we turned back more than two million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong attackers. When the blistering attacks and bombardment of Khe Sanh came, we held. When Lt. Colonel Hal Moore’s soldiers were faced with crushing odds in the Battle of la Drang, they prevailed.

Hurdles to Overcome

Today, warriors and their families are facing a new nemesis. They are confronting an insidious adversary—a web of bureaucratic processes that make it impossible to promptly award a deserving man or woman the Medal of Honor. Nightmarish procedural and review hurdles for the Medal have evolved over time, even stifling the meaning of the award.

It is past time that we clear the wheat from the chaff, and bring honor to the deserving—promptly.

Statistics can be abused but this comparison is telling. Our nation awarded 240 Medals of Honor for valor in the Vietnam War as compared to just two for the War on Terror.


12-05-2006, 20:01
History demonstrates that the Medal of Honor has normally been awarded in close proximity in time to the actual event. For example, Audie Murphy received his Medal of Honor two days after his heroism. During the battle for Iwo Jima, 22 Marines and five sailors were awarded the Medal of Honor within a month.

Since the war on Terror ensued, just two Medals of Honor have been awarded, both posthumously. In each case, both recipients died saving others. In the first case, two long years transpired between the time of Paul Smith’s heroic act and the day his surviving wife and 11-year old son received his MOH. Specifically, Sergeant First Class Smith single-handedly killed more than 30 insurgents with a .50 caliber machine gun and hand grenades, saving the lives of 100 soldiers. During the melee, he organized the evacuation of several wounded soldiers. 730 long days passed before his son and wife received his Medal.

More recently, the family of Marine Corporal Jason Dunham received our nation’s highest honor. Others are alive today because Corporal Dunham used his helmet to buffer the blast on an enemy grenade. A shard of metal blew through his helmet and into his head, eventually taking his life at Bethesda Naval Hospital. Yet it took Washington 900 days to award his Medal to his family.

How long does it take to measure the heroic contributions of a fallen warrior? Is 300 days enough? 500? Perhaps 30 to 90 days is a very realistic period. The passage of time doesn’t freshen memory, just the opposite. Delay is the Medal’s worst enemy, lessening the impact on those who most benefit: recipients, fellow warriors, families, and communities.

There were 179 posthumous Medals of Honor awarded for combat during the Vietnam Conflict or one for each 324 killed in the Conflict. As of November 30, 2006, there were 2,882 U.S. military killed in Iraq and another 349 killed in Afghanistan. This equates to one posthumous Medal of Honor for each 1,616 dead. This suggests that a member of the military killed in Vietnam was five times more likely to receive an MOH than a service member in the War on Terror.

Where Have All the Heroes Gone?

Where have all the heroes gone? They are just down the street from us. The go to church with us, play golf or bowl with our family and friends. They do what they can to keep food on the table and the bills paid. I was blessed to see heroic acts, some still unacknowledged, during my service in Vietnam. As grunts, we longed to be appreciated for going to war. But in the heat of combat, it all changes. We no longer exist for ourselves, but for each other. We are molded into a brotherhood: All for one, one for all. While our mission was to destroy a cunning and ferocious enemy, we did so in the context of saving each other. It is this brotherhood that calls us and sustains us, that gives us reason to believe and have hope when others let us down.

Our business is not just to please other mortals, but the God that calls us to arms, who sustains us during difficult periods, and gives us the guts to get it done. It is this God that shall judge us, not only as men, but also as warriors undeniably linked throughout history to our brothers who fought for family and community.

I don’t know of any Marine who has won a cherished medal that cannot other Marines who have gone unacknowledged for essentially the same valor.

I would be remiss if I did not tell you about a truly special hero. I do so because his accomplishment was so extraordinary that he commands acknowledgment. Life Magazine even documented his bravery. There was never a more obvious candidate for the Medal of Honor in any war.

His heroism so conspicuous yet apparently never on the radar screen for those who awarded medals. For some, the process doesn’t work as it should. Perhaps one of the most horrific battles of the Vietnam War came during the siege of Khe Sanh.

Khe Sanh was in the middle of major North Vietnamese Army (NVA) infiltration routes across the demilitarized zone. It made sense that the American military attempt to intercept these units as they made their way south. In time, the US built a large base. Khe Sanh was viable as long as the Marines and Special Forces ran patrols to cut off NVA probes of the base’s perimeter. When the patrols operated, the NVA could not get their rockets and mortars into a position to be effective. Suddenly, the patrols were halted.

It was time to dig-in for what surely would be a major fight. The great Tet offensive came. The NVA blasted the base with all that they had. The weather worsened. The Marines were left to defend Khe Sanh with diminished ammunition and supplies, a growing tally of wounded and dead, and no reinforcements in sight.

The best way into Khe Sanh for the NVA was through a pass between two hills. The Marines dug trench lines across this choke point to make their stand. Lieutenant Don Shanley was the platoon commander given the task of defending that precious ground. He looked more like a Rhodes Scholar than a jaw-breaking Marine. In fact, he had been an All-America swimmer at Stanford University where he studied literature.

Shanley knew that it was only a matter of time before the “Big One” would come. Each day he worked with his squad leaders establishing their fields of fire, to cover all angles into the choke point they defended.

The attack exceeded expectations. It came late one night. In a nearby tree line, more than a thousand NVA soldiers lined up for a major assault against Shanley’s platoon of 45 souls. Ever alert, Shanley’s platoon picked up the movement of NVA toward their position. The NVA came in waves that horrified Shanley, who took up his own firing position in the second trench line. Scores of NVA soldiers fell during the first assault, which was designed merely to test Marine resolve.

As the NVA made their strategic retreat, Shanley assessed the situation. He had a hand full of casualties, including two killed in action. Yet he knew one thing, that his men were made of steel and that they would never bend.

Shanley re-positioned his platoon in the second, third and fourth trenches. He knew that the enemy would be back, that it was only a question of time. Fire support provided illuminating flares that confirmed what Shanley feared most. The NVA had redoubled their attack. Everywhere that Shanley looked with his night vision scope were NVA soldiers with AK-47s with fixed bayonets. Suddenly, hundreds if not thousands swarmed toward Shanley’s platoon.

The NVA pounded Shanley’s positions en masse and the lines held as men in the second trench were forced into hand-to-hand combat. Shanely’s men fixed bayonets and smashed the invaders. In a bold move, Shanley led his men in a counter-attack to the first trench line, a move that startled the NVA.

Once again, the enemy was forced into retreat. It was now slightly after 3 a.m. The seconds felt like minutes and Shanley knew he had no time to lose. He crawled from position-to-position, re-focusing fields of fire while sharing encouraging words to his men. Virtually every man that Shanley touched was wounded, some severely. But each man wanted to fight, to stay the course.

Shanley surveyed the landscape and could see piles of dead NVA soldiers everywhere. His platoon had killed more than a two hundred NVA and had wounded countless others. There were at least three-dozen bodies in and around the first trench line. The NVA fought with discipline, but the Marines were tougher.

Soon, the swarms of NVA came again. This time the attack was even more ferocious as they broke into a dead run up the grade toward the Marine positions. Just as before, Shanley’s men held their fire until the optimal time came. They unleashed their M-60 machine guns, M-79 grenade launchers, and M-16s with as much gusto as possible.


12-05-2006, 20:02
Once more, Shanley, facing death, crawled to key positions shouting encouragement while carrying the badly wounded back to the fourth trench line. His ear and nose were bleeding from the concussion of grenades. He had shrapnel wounds on his chest, arms and legs. There were NVA bodies everywhere; some piled three and four deep. To consolidate, Shanley moved his men back to the third and fourth trench lines.

With the rising sun came the end of the battle. Shanley lost a dozen men killed in action. Virtually every member of the platoon was wounded. But they had held the line, and Khe Sanh was safe.

Men in Shanley’s platoon that I have interviewed felt that their platoon leader justly deserved the Medal of Honor. The facts were not only undeniable, but the legendary photographer, David Douglas Duncan, captured them in photographs in Life Magazine.

The oversight of failing to recognize Don Shanley’s heroism troubles me to this day. I wasn’t at Khe Sanh. In fact, I have only met Don Shanley on one occasion. But I know what my brothers in arms have told me about this remarkable man and how he lived his life on this remarkable night. In fact, had Shanley’s platoon not held their ground, Khe Sanh would have been lost and hundreds of Americans killed.

I know that Don Shanley has paid a terrible price. In a narrow way, he never reached his potential as a Stanford graduate. Rather than become a man of letters or a prominent business leader, he retreated into the outer reaches of Elk, California where he established a small landscaping business. In his heart, Don Shanley knows that only a small number of men will ever come to appreciate what he did for his country. In some ways, that is enough. But it is unjust that this nation has failed to take full measure of this great man.

I ask that this Committee work with me to rectify this great injustice. Don Shanley should be awarded the Medal of Honor. The vision of this man comes into my mind as I contemplate the many that served so well with so little in return. As I look back to Khe Sanh, not a single Marine was awarded the Medal of Honor for service there. Hundreds of Marines gave their lives, only to see the base abandoned. For those lost, God was their witness and He held them in His arms as they breathed their last breath.

Brian Chontosh

I would be remiss if I did not mention Brian Chontosh, a true hero from the present War on Terror. Chontosh is an example of a Marine who has yet to receive the credit that is due him. He is the kind of warrior who, in years past, would have received a ticker-tape parade down Fifth Avenue.

As a young lieutenant in 2003, he and his platoon were ambushed near Baghdad. Machine gun fire, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades spewed from every direction. Lieutenant Chontosh ordered his Humvee directly into an enemy machine-gun position, where his gunner destroyed the nest. He then advanced on a trench, where he exited his vehicle and scattered enemy fighters. After his ammunition was depleted, he twice picked up an enemy’s rifle and continued firing.

By the time the smoke cleared, Lieutenant Chontosh had killed more than 20 insurgents and saved the lives of dozens in his platoon. For his incredible courage, he was awarded the Navy Cross, the second-highest award given to Marines. Second highest? I am pledged to work to correct what clearly is an error in judgment.


My recommendations are intended to streamline the current awards process so that Medals of Honor can be awarded in close proximity in time to the heroic event. Further, I wish to see efforts made that adequately acknowledge the heroic accomplishments that simply are overlooked at present.

My proposals should not be taken as criticism of the Department of Defense or the military services.

Also, it is important that the integrity of field commanders manage the war fighting process and that awards do not become a bureaucratic hindrance.

I am certain that the individuals involved in the process of reviewing cases for the Medal of Honor only wish to protect the integrity of the award, a goal that I embrace.

The recommendations that follow below are meant as general guidelines not as strict standards. Those making important decisions should operate under realistic timeframes.

My suggestions:

First, any posthumous award for valor should be granted within seven days of death arising from wounds received in combat in cases where this is possible and where the integrity of the award can be preserved.

Second, the award of a Medal of Honor to a living member of the military should be granted within 30 days of the return of the individual from the theater of operations.

Third, in cases involving previous military action dating back several years, an award decision should be made within one year of the beginning of consideration.

Fourth, any review process by the Department of Defense in Washington should include both combat experienced officers and enlisted service members.

May we work together to see that our warriors are properly and promptly recognized for service above and beyond the call of duty? Equally important, let us preserve the integrity of our medals of valor. In so doing, we will bring honor to all of the men and women who wear the uniforms of this great nation.

Mr. Chairman, I began by saying that we must appropriately recognize courage as a building block for sustaining this nation. Without courage, we have nothing. I hope that this Committee will find the message that I have brought today useful in its understanding of a critical national security issue. In closing, it has been a privilege to address this hearing.

x SF med
12-05-2006, 20:45
Outstanding argument!

12-05-2006, 21:25
I most definitely agree.

12-06-2006, 07:36
"Fourth, any review process by the Department of Defense in Washington should include both combat experienced officers and enlisted service members."

Good article...good points.

Goggles Pizano
12-06-2006, 09:32
I was curious how long an article such as this would take to surface. The argument is sound and I agree wholeheartedly. I wonder if it will make an impact?

12-07-2006, 19:57
"Fourth, any review process by the Department of Defense in Washington should include both combat experienced officers and enlisted service members."

Good article...good points.

"Fourth, any review process by the Department of Defense in Washington should include both combat experienced officers and enlisted service members."

Good article...good points.

In my own experience, I have seen two Silver Star Awards turned down by a board of senior officers and NCOs of whom only about two had ever had combat experience (and I don't mean being in the TOC when a badly aimed rocket lands 300 meters away - I mean, hearing the bad guys' bullets snap overhead every so often while in the fight). One of the potential recipients was in charge of a firebase with two detachments and had been wounded twice in combat. He had taken part in five major firefights; fights so intense that a total of five friendly KIA and two wounded resulted. His plan for the AO resulted in hundreds of missions conducted and plenty of successes.

In one fight, he was wounded early on and fought in spite of his wound and led his detachment out of an ambush where they were nearly overrun (I was there with him). His efforts led to the destruction of hundreds of enemy in the eight months he was in theater. Yet, this SF warrior, and friend, received the same award that the officers in the FOB received for their efforts (though important and necessary) while pushing a desk.

This really angers me. The other potential recipient (one of the bravest NCOs I've met) led his detachmet through an ambush as the detachment commander was critically wounded in the first volley and the team sergeant was cut off from the rest of the team. Again, this second guy received the same award some of the guys at the S1 shop received. It just does not make sense.

Lastly, the CIB was given to anyone within the sound of an incoming rocket on a firebase. For the teams, this was a no brainer; nearly all of us had contact by the time we left country. For my company, we all had been in at least one nasty firefight. But, I recently saw the orders for the CIB and there were guys on there that, while excellent people, were never in an actual firefight. In fact, the closest any of them were in "contact" was when when a rocket, or mortar would land far away (the closest one landed was about 100 meters from most folks). I met a female soldier that told me that members of her unit had been at their office next door when that particular rocket fell and about two weeks later, the all received their "Combat Action" Badge. Maybe there are degrees in combat - I only know combat as what I saw and it was about blood, guts and courage. My company commander told me: "The important thing is that you know where and how you earned yours. You, can look into the mirror in the morning and live with how your uniform looks with that badge because you earned it." Maybe I'm whinning about something utterly stupid. But, I think we need to re-think our definitions of "combat" and "valor".

For the CIB, I think the consideration needs to change from "Receive or return fire" to Recieve AND return fire" when engaged by the enemy. Ok, off my soap box

Goggles Pizano
12-07-2006, 21:48
Outstanding post Sir!