In July, U.S. President Joe Biden awarded four Medal of Honor awards to veterans from the Vietnam War.
Staff Sergeant Edward N. Kaneshiro (posthumously), Specialist Five Dwight W. Birdwell, Specialist Five Dennis M. Fujii, and retired Major John J. Duffy were all recognized for their heroics that took place close to 60 years ago in the jungles of southeast Asia.
The occasion justifies a dive into the criteria and circumstances necessary for a warfighter to earn the Medal of Honor.
The criteria for earning the Medal of Honor
The Pentagon established the current criteria for earning the Medal of Honor as the Vietnam War was heating up in the early 1960s.
According to the White House, the Medal of Honor is awarded to servicemembers of the armed forces who have distinguished themselves conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity while risking their own lives beyond the call of duty. Three operational circumstances qualify a candidate for the Medal of Honor (either one would be sufficient, and a troop doesn’t have to meet all three requirements).
- First, he or she must be engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States.
- Second, he or she must be engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force.
- And finally, he or she must be serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party.
“The meritorious conduct must involve great personal bravery or self-sacrifice so conspicuous as to clearly distinguish the individual above his or her comrades and must have involved risk of life. There must be incontestable proof of the performance of the meritorious conduct, and each recommendation for the award must be considered on the standard of extraordinary merit,” the White House states with respect to circumstances and conditions for the award of the Medal of Honor.
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But in order for a recommendation for the nation’s highest award for valor under fire to be filed and have chances of success, some additional requirements are needed.
To begin with, the recommendation package requires at the minimum two sworn accounts from witnesses who were present when the action took place.
(Technical Sergeant John Chapman is one of the few — if not only — cases in which his actions that earned him a posthumous Medal of Honor were witnessed by not other soldiers on the ground but an overflying Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft that was providing a live feed of the engagement in the mountains of Afghanistan on March 2002.)
Additionally, the recommendation package needs to have battlefield forensics that would corroborate the witness testimonies and recommendation package. Indeed, the more compelling evidence about the action there is, the better chances the recommendation package moves through the chain of command. A Medal of Honor recommendation needs to be approved at every level before ending on the president’s desk.
Normally, and by Federal Statute, Medal of Honor recommendation packages must have been submitted within three years of when the action took place, and the medal must be presented within five years of the action. However, as was shown earlier this month with the awarding of four Medal of Honor for actions that took place during the Vietnam War, that federal statute can be bypassed, but only through an Act of Congress.
Related: Here’s where the military’s highest award is made — the Medal of Honor
Some data on the Medal of Honor
The Medal of Honor was first established in 1862, and the standards that guide its award to a servicemember have changed over the years. What has been a guiding theme, however, is that the criteria to earn the Medal of Honor have become progressively harder. And this can be easily gauged by the number of medals that have been awarded in the different conflicts.
Of the 3,534 Medal of Honors that have been awarded since 1862, almost half (1,523) were earned in the Civil War, and more than two-thirds (2,198) were earned before the First World War.
Specifically, 426 were earned during the Indian Wars, 110 during the Spanish-American War, 80 during the Philippine Insurrection, and 59 during the Boxer Rebellion that took place in China in the closing days of the 19th century.
However, as the years pass, fewer and fewer Medal of Honors are being awarded. For example, 126 Medals were earned during World War I, 472 were earned during World War II, 146 were earned during the Korean War, and 266 were earned during the Vietnam War. Since Vietnam, only 31 Medals of Honor have been awarded.
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- More than missing guns: Why America lost dogfights over Vietnam
- Operation Junction City: Vietnam’s only large-scale airborne operation
- Report: Cashe one of three to receive Medal of Honor
- The Gatling Guns that led to Roosevelt’s Medal of Honor
Linda Compton Anders says
My name is Linda Compton Anders. My dad, Dewey Compton was on Omaha Beach on the Beaches of Normandy and he passed away on October 15, 2000. I have a cabinet that I have things in to honor him and I was wondering how I could get a medal of honor for his service? He was Technician Fifth Grade, Company “C”, Second Signal Batallion from Fort Knox, KY., in the Army. Please let me know as soon as possible, thanks.
Joyce Ingargiola says
He’s a humble man. Believes that God and Country are first and then family. He just turned 97 years old. He served this Country in WWII A Marine over in Iwo Jima and Gwam. He fought on the front lines. Just a small in stature but big in heart. He was sent to a ship that had a small makeshift hospital on it. They asked for volunteers to go into the battlefield and bring back the wounded. He told me of the fear as he carried the wounded to a boat hearing the bombs and gunfire all around him. But he continued several trips on the boat bringing the wounded to the ship hoping some would be saved. He told me of one soldier he knew was already dead but he didn’t think about it because he had go back into the battlefield and get more wounded soldiers in hopes they could be saved on the ship. I knew this man of little means for 62 years and never knew much except how he was on that ship when they raised the American flag…. That famous picture we see so often… I just learned this man can never receive The Medal of Honor because he doesn’t have two people to say they witnessed him saving lives and risking his own in the middle of a war…. How can this Country ignore such a humble hero?? How can this Country that this man fought for and loves so much not honor him with highest honors available?? All because he doesn’t have two witnesses…. How about hearing this humble 97 year old man tell his story and then decide if he is worthy of the The Medal of Honor for volunteering to go into the battlefield and bring out as many wounded soldiers as he could so they could get medical treatment while at the same time risking his life… yes… that is going above and beyond the call of duty and then some…. I’m glad I finally asked him about his time in the service and I wouldn’t expect anything less from my dad… a man of faith, a humble man, a man who loves his Country and his family