Awarding the Medal of Honor

Story by Elizabeth M. Collins, Soldiers, Defense Media Activity

Officials at Human Resources Command’s Awards and Decorations Branch have arguably one of the most exciting/solemn/important jobs in the Army: They process award recommendations. From Combat Action Badges to Purple Hearts to Medals of Honor, if the Army awards it, the team processes it. They can be new or old, lost or posthumous, replacements or a fresh look.

The Medal of Honor nomination process is governed by a strict set of rules, and packets require the award recommendation, an in-depth narrative, the citation, witness statements and topographical maps with detailed description of the events. (U.S. Army graphic)

The Medal of Honor nomination process is governed by a strict set of rules, and packets require the award recommendation, an in-depth narrative, the citation, witness statements and topographical maps with detailed description of the events. (U.S. Army graphic)

The most visible and important of those awards is, of course, the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor. Its nomination process is governed by a strict set of rules, according to Chief Warrant Officer 4 Stacy-Ann Simms, the branch’s deputy chief. If it’s more than two years old, for example, a Congressional representative must sponsor the award and Congress has to pass time-waiver legislation to open the award process again.

“Then it comes to our office and then goes through a pretty extensive vetting process,” said Simms. “The Medal of Honor packet is pretty substantial information: You have the award recommendation, narrative, citation, witness statements, topographical maps with the events laid out. If it’s prior era, it doesn’t require what current era awards require, which is a 15-6 investigation. Prior era doesn’t require that. That’s the only difference between prior conflict MOHs and the current conflicts.”

1st Lt. Alonzo Hereford Cushing was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, Nov. 6, 2014, for actions during the Civil War’s Battle of Gettysburg. Cushing commanded 126 men and six cannons positioned on Cemetery Ridge, July 3, 1863. Although severely wounded, Cushing refused to evacuate and directed the operation of his two remaining guns. He would eventually fall in battle. Workers at Army Human Resources Command’s Awards and Decorations Branch are responsible for processing all medals and awards, even awards that are decades — and in this case, more than a century — old. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army)

1st Lt. Alonzo Hereford Cushing was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, Nov. 6, 2014, for actions during the Civil War’s Battle of Gettysburg. Cushing commanded 126 men and six cannons positioned on Cemetery Ridge, July 3, 1863. Although severely wounded, Cushing refused to evacuate and directed the operation of his two remaining guns. He would eventually fall in battle. Workers at Army Human Resources Command’s Awards and Decorations Branch are responsible for processing all medals and awards, even awards that are decades — and in this case, more than a century — old. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army)

If it’s for a prior conflict –the person who originally recommended the award has to have first-hand knowledge of the action. That person might be deceased, but it has to have been well documented. For example, in 2014, Civil War hero 1st Lt. Alonzo Hereford Cushing was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for the Battle of Gettysburg. In his case, a private foundation had kept extensive accounts and articles about Cushing. That documentation corroborated the meticulous records maintained by the-then War Department, said Patricia Hill, policy chief at the Awards and Decorations Branch.

Other awards, such as the Distinguished Service Cross, can be resubmitted for an upgrade if there is “new and substantive information.” Sometimes that Soldier would have been more than eligible for a Medal of Honor today, but at the time, racism or prejudice resulted in a downgraded award. In 2014, for example, 24 Jewish, Hispanic and African-American veterans from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War were awarded Medals of Honor.

It took about 12 years from the date Congress passed a law ordering the relooks, and although only three of those veterans were alive to finally receive their medals – Master Sgt. Jose Rodela, Sgt. 1st Class Melvin Morris and Sgt. Santiago J. Erevia – “It was a proud day for the Army,” said Hill, who has worked for Awards and Decorations for about five years. “I wasn’t here when it started … but I was here when it was finally done. The Army should be proud of all the work that went into that. I know I was proud of that.” Sadly, Erevia passed away March 22, 2016 at the age of 70.

Each Medal of Honor nomination is subject to multiple boards and investigations before the packet reaches the secretary of defense, who can either downgrade the award to a Distinguished Service Cross or forward it to the president, who is the only person who can actually award the Medal of Honor.

“At every step of the process we have checks and balances to ensure that we’re taking care of the Soldier,” said Simms. “We’re relaying to the Congressional sponsor what’s required. … The preparation that goes into these packets when we’re staffing them or they’re going before a board is very extensive, very thorough. A whole binder is put together. It’s usually a pretty thick binder.

“Even though I can’t disclose the details about our boards, I sit in both boards (Army Decorations Board and Senior Army Decorations Board) as a recorder and it makes my hair stand up when these battles are being spoken about and discussed,” she continued. “On the Senior Army Decorations Board, there is a Medal of Honor recipient as an advisor on that board. … He’s from the Vietnam Era, so a lot of times from the Vietnam Era, he’s aware of the battles. He actually can give input. We absolutely know how important it is.”

Historic Medal of Honor packets are also forwarded to experts at the U.S. Army Center of Military History for review, basically for confirmation that the unit in question was involved in that particular battle. Or for smaller, largely unknown skirmishes or many awards involving covert special operations actions, historians at least try to verify that a unit could have been in the geographic area at the time.

“The information is usually so complete that they don’t have to do much,” said David W. Hogan Jr., chief of the General Histories Branch. “We check, ‘do these documents look authentic? Are they in the proper letterheads? Do they have the proper date signatures?’ Then we compare them against secondary sources here at CMH … and try to see are these packets consistent with the historical record? Is there something that seems out of line or that would indicate some of the material is not genuine or not accurate? Are there any inaccuracies that we can spot? … There have been cases where it is pretty hard to pin down. Even so, it’s very rare that we go over to the National Archives and have to do a lot of digging.”

Vietnam veterans Sgt. 1st Class Melvin Morris, Master Sgt. Jose Rodela, and Sgt. Santiago J. Erevia, along with 21 other veterans from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, had their Distinguished Service Crosses upgraded to Medals of Honor. Here, they take part in a Medal of Honor presentation ceremony at the White House, March 18, 2014. Of the 24 who fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, only Morris, Rodela and Erevia were alive to receive their medals. Erevia passed away March 22, 2016 at the age of 70. (Department of Defense photo by J.D. Leipold, Army News Service, Defense Media Activity)

Vietnam veterans Sgt. 1st Class Melvin Morris, Master Sgt. Jose Rodela, and Sgt. Santiago J. Erevia, along with 21 other veterans from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, had their Distinguished Service Crosses upgraded to Medals of Honor. Here, they take part in a Medal of Honor presentation ceremony at the White House, March 18, 2014. Of the 24 who fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, only Morris, Rodela and Erevia were alive to receive their medals. Erevia passed away March 22, 2016 at the age of 70. (Department of Defense photo by J.D. Leipold, Army News Service, Defense Media Activity)

For an award involving Sgt. 1st Class Robert F. Keiser’s actions at Kunu-ri, North Korea, Nov. 30, 1950, Hogan consulted the Army’s official history, the 2nd Infantry Division’s history and some secondary sources, such as Army historian Roy Appleman’s books. (“South to the Naktong, North to the Yalu” is available on CMH’s website.) Keiser was ultimately awarded a posthumous Distinguished Service Cross in 2014 for helping clear roadblocks and evacuate the wounded during the bloody battle known as the Gauntlet.

When the president does nominate a Soldier or veteran for the Medal of Honor, it can be deeply satisfying for the Awards and Decorations employees: “We follow it closely,” said Simms. “We get the announcement prior to it being put out, usually. … If we can, we’ll watch the presentation on TV or when we get home and then we’ll discuss it the next morning. It’s kind of a good news story for us. It makes your hair stand up like I was saying, especially if you were a part of it from the beginning of the process.

“Sometimes it’s very lengthy (on average about three years, after an award gets through Congress). … Watching the process from the start to the end is just awesome. We’re able to recognize our veterans years and years later. We take pride in that and we’re just humbled that we’re able to do that for our veterans.”

Editor’s Note: For more Medal of Honor stories, visit the U.S. Army’s special Medal of Honor site or the Soldiers YouTube Medal of Honor play list. To look up a citation, visit the Center of Military History.

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