As President Obama awarded his first Medal of Honor Thursday, the Pentagon has undertaken to review a number of other instances of battlefield heroism to determine if any living American service members should be awarded the Medal of Honor.
The effort comes amid some criticism that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have produced few recipients of the Medal of Honor, and none of them living. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday the issue troubles him and that his department is looking at several cases of potential living recipients.
On Thursday, Mr. Obama awarded a Medal of Honor posthumously to Sgt. 1st Class Jared Monti who was killed in Afghanistan in 2006 after diving into a hail of gunfire to save a fallen comrade during an ambush. Monti ran out from behind cover three times before he was shot and later died.
"It was written long ago that 'the bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet, notwithstanding, go out to meet it,'" Mr. Obama said at a packed East Room ceremony at the White House.
"Jared Monti saw the danger before him. And he went out to meet it."
The lack of recipients is a highly emotional issue for many a military man or woman because it goes to the heart of kind of sacrifice for which military service is heralded.
Vietnam produced some 246 Medals of Honor – 154 of which were awarded posthumously. After eight years of war and more than 5,000 combat fatalities, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have produced only six, and all awarded posthumously.
"This has been a source of real concern to me," Mr. Gates told Pentagon reporters Thursday. "I would tell you, it was one of, I think it was one of President Bush's real regrets, that he did not have the opportunity to honor a living Medal of Honor winner, or recipient, I should say."
There are many reasons for the fewer instances of "conspicuous gallantry" being honored today, say military officials. Within the military, there are distinct cultures within each of the services, which means that Navy officials might look at combat heroism differently than the Army. Then, too, senior military and civilian officials today mostly postdate the Vietnam era, when dozens of people received the award.
Also, the process of evaluating whether battlefield heroics rise to the level of a Medal of Honor is a "labor-intensive" one that can take years to complete. But Gates said some more individuals are now being considered for the highest military honor.
The Defense Department is also undertaking a separate initiative to look at the broader issue of why so few service members have been awarded the Medal of Honor. That report is due to Congress March 31, a Pentagon spokesman said.