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Celebrating the highest military honor in the US

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Sgt Leroy Petry Medal of Honor
Army civilian employees pass around Retired Master Sgt. Leroy Petry’s Medal of Honor while attending a Mental Health Awareness Observance May 17, Heritage Hall, Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois. Petry asked the audience to pass around his medal while he served as one of the keynote speakers during the event. (Photo by Kevin Fleming/U.S. Army Sustainment Command)

Today is National Medal of Honor Day which celebrates the highest military honor in the country.

The Medal of Honor is reserved for bravest actions in the face of the enemy. To earn the medal, a servicemember has to distinguish himself or herself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity while risking their life under fire and beyond the call of duty against an enemy of the United States.

First established in 1862, a year after the Civil War broke out, the Medal of Honor has changed over time, including in how and who can earn it – and today, the Medal of Honor is exceptionally tough to earn.

Private Jacob Parrott was the first recipient of the Medal of Honor for his actions during the Civil War. There has also been one woman awardee, Mary Edwards Walker, a contract surgeon who saved countless lives with her medicine during the Civil War.

Since the medal was established more than 150 years ago, 3,536 Medal of Honors have been awarded to 3,517 recipients (there have been some multiple awardees before the criteria were restricted).

The medal and how it was earned changed right before World War I. By that point, more than 60 percent (2,198) of the total Medals of Honor ever earned had been awarded.

The Civil War is by far the conflict with the most Medals of Honor awarded. During the four-year conflict, 1523 Union troops received the highest military award. Then, during the Indian Wars against Native Americans (roughly 1862 to 1911) 426 medals were awarded. In the Spanish-American War (April 1898 to December 1898), 110 medals were awarded. In the Philippine-American War (1899 to 1902), American troops earned 80 Medals of Honor. During the Boxer Rebellion (1899 to 1901), 59 medals were awarded. Finally, in the American-Mexican border War (1900 to 1919), 56 medals were awarded.

Related: Iliff Richardson’s efforts against the Japanese in the Philippines were so impressive that he earned medals from both the Army and Navy

Patrick Brady Medal of Honor
The Medal of Honor hangs on recipient Maj. Gen. Patrick Brady’s chest during a military appreciation event at Clemson University, Oct. 31, 2019. Brady received the nation’s highest award for valor for actions Near Chu Lai, Republic of Vietnam, January 6, 1968 as the pilot of a UH-1H ambulance helicopter, known as a “Dustoff.” Over the course of many hours Brady utilized three helicopters (after the first two were rendered inoperable because of damage from enemy fire) to evacuate 51 seriously wounded men, many of whom would have died without prompt medical treatment. (Photo by Ken Scar/U.S. Army Cadet Command)

The story from World War I and onwards is very different. During the Great War, just 126 Medals of Honor were awarded. Then, during World War II, American troops earned 472 Medals of Honor. In the forgotten war of Korea (1950 to 1953), 146 medals were awarded, and 268 medals were earned in Vietnam (1955 to 1975). Since then, only 30 medals have been awarded (two in Somalia, eight in Iraq, and 20 in Afghanistan).

The Army leads the way with 2,467 medals. The Navy follows with 749, while the Marine Corps boasts 300. The Air Force, the newest service until the creation of the Space Force, has 19. Finally, the Coast Guard has one.

A big myth about the Medal of Honor is that you have to die to earn it. But according to the statistics, only about 19 percent of the awardees received the highest military award posthumously.

Another interesting fact is that U.S. citizenship isn’t a requirement for earning the medal. To this day, 764 awardees were born overseas and not all of them later became U.S. citizens. However, one must be serving in the military to get the medal.

Today, there are 63 Medal of Honor recipients alive.

By law, recommendation packages for the highest military award must be submitted within three years of the action in question. This statute of limitations encourages timely reporting of actions worthy to be recognized with the medal. But Congress, though a specific act, can bypass that requirement and green light Medals of Honor for actions that took place decades ago. Recently, successive administrations have been using this window to correct past mistakes and the Pentagon has been re-reviewing records of past conflicts and upgrading awards to the Medal of Honor.

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Stavros Atlamazoglou

Greek Army veteran (National service with 575th Marines Battalion and Army HQ). Johns Hopkins University. You will usually find him on the top of a mountain admiring the view and wondering how he got there.

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