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Behind closed doors, the U.S. military scrutinizes modern cases of valor for new Medals of Honor

President Obama awards medically retired Army Capt. Florent Groberg the Medal of Honor during a White House ceremony in Washington last November. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

The Pentagon’s search to make sure that modern war heroes are appropriately recognized has reached a new phase, with senior service officials meeting behind closed doors to review the cases of hundreds of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

The process, directed by Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, started early this year and could lead to numerous cases in which veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are retroactively awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for combat valor, or service cross medals that are considered one step lower. The effort follows a review called for by then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in 2014 after years of criticism among rank-and-file service members that acts of bravery after the Sept, 11, 2001, attacks were not getting the attention they were due.

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Doug Sterner, a Vietnam War veteran and historian who has testified before Congress on valor award issues, said the review is unprecedented in U.S. military history. The Army carried out a review beginning in the late 1980s to determine whether there were racial barriers to black soldiers receiving the Medal of Honor in World War I and black and Japanese soldiers in World War II, but the entire Defense Department has never done a comprehensive review like this one, he said.

“I’m optimistic that we’ll see some positive things out of the Army, and it looks like we may have a couple out of the Air Force,” Sterner said. “I’m less optimistic about the Marine Corps and Navy having any upgrades, because they’ve typically done really well tracking and handling their awards. But, it would be nice to see a couple of them come out of there.”

The Navy and the Marine Corps became the latest of the services to review past valor cases by convening an 11-member joint board Oct. 12 at Quantico, Va. It is led by a Marine general and includes three Marine colonels, three senior Navy officers and two enlisted service members from each service, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post. The board is expected to review dozens of cases in which the Navy Cross and Silver Star — the nation’s second- and third-highest awards recognizing combat valor — were awarded for potential upgrade.

The services are reviewing their awards together because they are both part of the Navy Department. The board must be ethnically diverse, filled entirely with members who have combat experience, and include at least one member who has served in Naval Special Warfare Command, a Navy Department memo said.

“At the conclusion of its review, the panel will provide the Secretary of the Navy with an advisory report identifying all cases reviewed, and which of those, if any, are recommended for upgrade,” the memo said. “The Chief of Naval Operations and the Commandant of the Marine Corps will be afforded an opportunity to endorse the panel’s report prior to its presentation to the SECNAV.”

The other services have launched similar efforts. The Army, the largest service, established a three-phase process in which acts of heroism that could receive higher recognition are forwarded to boards with progressively higher-ranking soldiers reviewing the cases, said Wayne Hall, an Army spokesman.

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The first meeting in the second phase will begin in November, and includes a three-star general, a two-star general and a command sergeant major reviewing all recommendations they received from the lower board. In the first phase, 412 of the Army’s 785 Silver Stars and Distinguished Service Cross cases have been reviewed so far, and eight service crosses and 50 Silver Stars have been recommended for a review by the higher board, Hall said.

The Air Force, which has smaller numbers of ground troops and, consequently, fewer combat valor awards, reviewed all of its cases in May. Air Force staff officers are now reviewing the board’s findings, with recommendations eventually going to Gen. David L. Goldfein, the service’s top officer, and Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, said Ann Stefanek, a service spokeswoman.

The process of reviewing valor awards is typically secretive, with little acknowledgment for what a service member may receive until a decision is reached. The Medal of Honor requires a positive recommendation from the service involved and the defense secretary and approval from the president. Service crosses require approval by the service secretary.

Navy officials declined to discuss their process beyond releasing a short statement: “In accordance with the Secretary of Defense’s directive, the Department of the Navy’s review is in progress.” The Marine Corps acknowledged a board has been convened this month.

The cases of several service members who were denied the Medal of Honor have proven controversial. In one of the best known, Army Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe received a Silver Star for repeatedly scrambling Oct. 17, 2005, into a burning Bradley Fighting Vehicle in Samarra, Iraq, to pull fellow soldiers to safety. He suffered devastating burns and died a few weeks later. Cashe’s battalion commander at the time, now-Brig. Gen. Gary M. Brito, later said he did not realize the extent of the danger Cashe was in when he nominated him for the Silver Star, and has pressed to have the award upgraded.

In another case, Marine Lance Cpl. Brady Gustafson was awarded the Navy Cross after manning the gun turret of a Humvee in Shewan, Afghanistan, after it was hit in a July 21, 2008, ambush with a rocket-propelled grenade that caused catastrophic damage to his right leg. Gustafson continued to return fire at enemy fighters even as a Navy corpsman cranked a tourniquet on his leg inside the vehicle. His battalion commander, now-Marine Col. Richard Hall, later said that he regretted not putting him up for the Medal of Honor.

More recently, Army Sgt. 1st Class Earl Plumlee was nominated by his commanding officer for the Medal of Honor for heroism in eastern Afghanistan on Aug. 28, 2013, and received a positive recommendation for the award from numerous generals, including Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, then the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. The award was denied, and Plumlee ultimately received the Silver Star, eventually prompting a Defense Department Inspector General investigation. It found that despite approvals from numerous battlefield commanders, the Senior Army Decorations Board decided the lower award was more appropriate.

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