Medal of Honor may go to living soldier for first time in decades

The Pentagon is preparing to nominate a living soldier for the Medal of Honor – the military’s highest distinction – for the first time since the Vietnam War, the Washington Post reports Thursday.

The Pentagon has not released the nominee’s name while the award is under consideration, but the Post reports that he ran through a wall of enemy fire in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, saving the lives of several comrades. Military officials told Post reporters Greg Jaffe and Craig Whitlock that even the soldier’s own family does not know how far his nomination has gone: all the way to the White House (which must review the nomination).

Only eight Medals of Honor have been awarded for wars since Vietnam, the Post says: two in Somalia and six in the current Afghanistan and Iraq wars. All of them were posthumous. Of the six most recent recipients, three of them jumped on grenades to save fellow troops. (One awardee from the Korean War, however, did get the medal in 2005).

In Vietnam, 246 servicemen won Medals of Honor. More than a third of them survived their acts of heroism.

Veterans groups have protested both the far lower volume of Medal of Honor awards in the Afghan and Iraqi conflicts and the practice of awarding them only posthumously. Several lawmakers have taken up that cause.

And Defense Secretary Robert Gates “finds it impossible to believe that there is no one who has performed a valorous act deserving of the Medal of Honor who has lived to tell about it,” Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told the Post.

The Pentagon nomination coincides with several recently reported setbacks in veterans’ morale. Time magazine has found that female veterans’ mental health problems stemming from readjustment to civilian life are underdiagnosed, and other health and quality-of-life concerns get overlooked in the Veterans Affairs bureaucracy. Meanwhile, in congressional testimony Wednesday, Army Secretary John McHugh promised to try to rectify “unimaginable, unacceptable wrongs” in the administration of Arlington National Cemetery – referring to the ongoing scandal of soldiers’ misplaced remains, abandoned headstones and poor record keeping.

Officials under President George W. Bush worried that a lack of living, public heroes in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars made it more difficult to convince Americans of the wars’ importance, former Bush White House staffer Peter Feaver told the Post.

The Korengal Valley is one of the most dangerous postings in the U.S. military, according to a recent National Geographic documentary that followed a platoon stationed there in 2007.

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