March 25 is National Medal of Honor Day, a day to pause and reflect on the profound legacy of the United States’ most highly decorated heroes. About 30 of the 71 surviving recipients will have gathered in Washington to celebrate the bond that unites them over the span of seven decades – from World War II through the wars in Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan.
One major modern conflict is noteworthy for its lack of representation: the Iraq War.
This eight-year war claimed the lives of almost 4,500 Americans and left more than 32,000 wounded. The most brutal battles since Vietnam took place in Iraq, in cities such as Baghdad, Fallujah and Ramadi, and acts of heroism abounded. Emblematic is the story of Marine Sgt. Maj. Bradley Kasal. On Nov. 13, 2004, then-1st Sgt. Kasal entered an enemy-occupied building in Fallujah, a death trap our troops had dubbed “Hell House,” to assist fellow Marines who were pinned down by a superior enemy force. Under withering fire, Kasal killed an insurgent immediately; then, while dragging a wounded Marine to safety, he was struck with seven rounds of small-arms fire. Severely wounded, Kasal used the few bandages he had to treat his injured comrade rather than himself.
When the insurgents lobbed a grenade at them, Kasal rolled on top of the wounded Marine, absorbing the impact of the blast and suffering 43 shrapnel wounds. He refused to leave the house until all of the other Marines were safe. A photograph taken of Kasal staggering from the house, pistol in hand, supported by fellow Marines, his uniform soaked in blood, became an iconic image of the Iraq War.
Kasal was later awarded the Navy Cross – the Navy and Marine Corps’ second-highest award for valor. Does anyone seriously doubt that his heroism is also worthy of the Medal of Honor?
There are many other Iraq War veterans with stories as compelling as Kasal’s, and I have met many of them. They are extraordinary men, yet without the Medal of Honor their stories will almost certainly be forgotten as time passes.
That is because the Medal of Honor confers a unique cachet upon its recipients. Honorees are in demand as speakers at civic, military and corporate conventions – and, most importantly, by schools and youth groups.
The fact that not a single living Iraq War veteran has received the Medal of Honor is a serious injustice to the 1.5 million Americans who served in that conflict. Consider: 1,523 Medals of Honor were awarded for heroism in the Civil War,126 in World War I, 471 in World War II, 145 in the Korean War and 260 in Vietnam. Two soldiers killed in Somalia in 1993 and 14 who fought in Afghanistan have received the award (three of the latter posthumously). Yet for Iraq, only four Medals of Honor have been awarded, all posthumously.
Until 2009, there were no living recipients from Afghanistan, either. That year, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates expressed disbelief that of the 2.5 million American veterans who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan, none who were still living had received the Medal of Honor.
Things began to change almost immediately, with the eventual awarding of 11 Medals of Honor to living veterans of Afghanistan, the most recent going to Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator Edward Byers Jr. in 2016. All are veterans of Afghanistan. Inexplicably, incredibly, not a single medal went to a living Iraq veteran.
It is not too late for remedial action.
The Pentagon has periodically conducted reviews of conflicts going back to World War II to correct injustices regarding withholding the Medal of Honor. Most recently, three living Vietnam veterans – Sgt. Santiago Erevia, Sgt. 1st Class Melvin Morris and Sgt. 1st Class Jose Rodela – received the medal from President Barack Obama four years ago.
The selection of Medal of Honor recipients is not done by formula. It is up to the judgment of those responsible in the Pentagon.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis commanded troops in Iraq and must surely rue the irony that not one of the living veterans of that conflict has been found worthy of the nation’s highest award for valor.
This year marks the 15th anniversary of the beginning of the war in Iraq. It is an appropriate time to recognize the first of many deserving Iraq War veterans with the Medal of Honor.