Gustafson refused to back down, however. Bleeding profusely, he engaged numerous enemy fighters while a Navy corpsman inside the vehicle cranked a tourniquet onto Gustfason’s leg. The hundreds of rounds of gunfire he delivered allowed Marines to evacuate another vehicle after it had burst into flames. The RPG blast knocked the Marine driving Gustafson’s vehicle unconscious, but Gustafson shouted at him until he woke up to push the burning Marine vehicle behind them out of the kill zone.
With the U.S. war in Iraq over and combat operations in Afghanistan winding down, Gustafson is now part of a select group of U.S. troops who didn’t receive the Medal of Honor, but who have advocates who say they should. In Gustafson’s case, that includes his former battalion commander, Col. Richard Hall, who says he regrets not nominating him for the higher award. Gustafson was put in for the Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest award for combat valor, and ultimately received the Navy Cross. He left the service as a corporal in 2009.
As my story in The Washington Post on Sunday noted, President George W. Bush awarded just five Medals of Honor for actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, all posthumously. Three were the most obvious of cases, in which a nominee smothered a grenade to protect fellow service members from harm. Those recipients are Army Spc. Ross McGinnis, Navy Master-at-Arms 2nd Class Michael Monsoor and Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham.
President Obama — and more specifically, the Defense Department under his watch — has awarded 11 Medals of Honor. Nine of them have gone to living recipients, a change since the Bush era that is roundly cheered in the military.
Still, there are numerous cases of valor in Iraq and Afghanistan that have not resulted in the award, and they have caused frustrations for years. Consider the following:
2. Army Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe
Drenched in fuel, Cashe scrambled into a burning Bradley Fighting Vehicle that had hit an improvised explosive device in Samarra, Iraq, on Oct. 17, 2005. He pulled six soldiers from the burning wreckage, suffering devastating burns in the process. He died a few weeks later on Nov. 8
Family and friends have been pushing to get Medal of Honor consideration for Cashe for years, as this Army Times story points out. His former battalion commander, Col. Gary Britto, put Cashe in for the Silver Star, and that’s what he got. He has said since that he did not know the full extent of Cashe’s heroism at the time, and wants to submit him for an upgrade.
3. Air Force Staff Sgt. Robert Gutierrez
Gutierrez was on the ground in a Special Operations mission in Herat province, Afghanistan, when he was shot by an armor-piercing round in the left shoulder. The airman thought he was going to die, he later said, but he refused to remove his body armor because he was the only joint terminal attack controller, a position that coordinates air support with pilots overhead, on the mission.
Gutierrez stayed calm and worked with an A-10 attack jet pilot overhead to coordinate fires, and did not learn of the full extent of his injuries until arriving in a medical evacuation zone, Air Force officials said. The gunshot wound is said to have damaged his shoulder, triceps muscle and chest, and left a softball-sized hole in his back. The strafing runs that the A-10 ran were so close, they ruptured his ear drums.
Gutierrez received the Air Force Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor in the Air Force, on Oct. 27, 2011. At least one columnist has said he deserves consideration for the higher award.
4. Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta
Peralta is perhaps the most famous example of a service member who didn’t get a Medal of Honor. He was submitted for the award after dying in house-to-house fighting in Fallujah, Iraq, on Nov. 15, 2004. His fellow Marines say he pulled a grenade under him that day shortly after being hit with a ricocheting rifle round, but his case languished for years due to uncertainty about whether or not he had the cognitive ability to do so despite sustaining a gunshot wound to the head.
Two Marines told The Washington Post in February that Peralta’s fellow service members concocted a story on the spot to honor Peralta in part because they feared he had been killed by friendly fire. Other Marines there that day have continued to insist that Peralta covered the grenade, citing forensic evidence and their own lack of injuries from the blast.
The Navy Department awarded the Navy Cross to Peralta, saying in his award citation that he pulled the grenade under his body “without hesitation and with complete disregard for his own personal safety.” His family has refused to accept the award, saying he deserves the Medal of Honor.
5. Marine Sgt. Maj. Bradley Kasal
Kasal was a first sergeant in Fallujah, Iraq, on Nov. 13, 2004, when he learned that Marines in his unit were pinned down under fire in a house. He pushed into the building with a squad of Marines, killed one insurgent, and then spotted a wounded Marine in the next room.
While moving toward the injured Marine, Kasal and another service member both came under heavy rifle fire and were wounded in the legs. Insurgents then threw grenades at them, and Kasal responded by rolling on top of the other Marine, sustaining shrapnel wounds. A photograph of him being carried from the house, bloody but still alert, is one of the most iconic images of the Iraq War.
Kasal received the Navy Cross for his heroism, and is now a sergeant major in the Marine Corps. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R.-Calif.) has called for service members who shielded a grenade blast from fellow service members to receive the Medal of Honor, citing both Peralta and Kasal as examples. He was widely believed to be a candidate for the Medal of Honor after his actions first surfaced.
6. Marine Lance Cpl. Christopher Adlesperger
Adlesperger was nominated for the Medal of Honor by his battalion commander for heroism in house-to-house fighting in Fallujah on Nov. 10, 2004, according to several media reports, citing the battalion commander who put him up for the award.
A private first class at the time, he came under heavy gunfire with his squad after pushing into a house. The point man in his unit was killed instantly, and another Marine and the Navy Corpsman with them was injured. Marine officials said he braved intense machine gun fire and grenades, killing an insurgent while sustaining shrapnel wounds. Nevertheless, he singlehandedly pushed forward, clearing a staircase and a rooftop of enemy fighters so that his fellow Marines could receive medical attention.
Adlesperger exited the building, but then demanded to take point on another assault on a machine gun position, re-entering the building after an armored vehicle breached the wall. He was killed about a month later in another firefight, and later received the Navy Cross posthumously.