BY DUANE A. VACHON, PH.D. At the risk of being accused of being pedantic I want to point out that the correct title of the award is the Medal of Honor. It is the highest award for bravery that the United States bestows on its citizens and deserves to be referred to by the correct name. Because the U.S. President presents the medal in the name of the United States Congress, it is sometimes called the Congressional Medal of Honor. The latter title is typically connected only with the organization—the Congressional Medal of Honor Society—that represents those who have earned the medal. Many people are not aware that there are three medals. One each for Navy, Army, and Air Force.
For those who have valiantly engaged themselves in war, Sandburg’s reflections in my article last week likely ring true. Bravery among enlisted personnel is not uncommon; it can be argued that all soldiers demonstrate courage during combat, even if others never witness their acts.
But, there are great acts of military valor that do not go unnoticed. These are recognized through the Medal of Honor— presented by the president in the name of Congress— the highest military honor that can be bestowed upon any American.
On December 9, 1861 Iowa Senator James W. Grimes introduced S. No. 82 in the United States Senate, a bill designed to “promote the efficiency of the Navy” by authorizing the production and distribution of “medals of honor”. On December 21st the bill was passed, authorizing 200 such medals be produced” which shall be bestowed upon such petty officers, seamen, landsmen and marines as shall distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action and other seamanlike qualities during the present war (Civil War).” President Lincoln signed the bill and the (Navy) Medal of Honor was born. As I penned these words it occurred to me that our politicians today have certainly lost the ability to pass a bill in 12 days.
Two months later on February 17, 1862 Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson introduced a similar bill, this one to authorize “the President to distribute medals to privates in the Army of the United States who shall distinguish themselves in battle.” Over the following months wording changed slightly as the bill made its way through Congress. When President Abraham Lincoln signed S.J.R. No 82 into law as 12 Stat. 623-624 on July 14, 1862, the Army Medal of Honor was born. It read in part:
Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the President of the United States be, and he is hereby, authorized to cause two thousand “medals of honor” to be prepared with suitable emblematic devices, and to direct that the same be presented, in the name of the Congress, to such non–commissioned officers and privates as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action, and other soldier-like qualities, during the present insurrection (Civil War).
Over the years, the Medal of Honor’s parameters have undergone revisions to ensure it is justly bestowed upon those who merit it, even if this is done in a belated fashion. It took nearly 60 years, for example, for 29 African-American and Asian-American heroes to be recognized for their actions in World War II. They were finally honored, many posthumously, at ceremonies at the White House in 1997 and 2000. There have also been cases where medals were rescinded and then reinstated, mistakenly awarded, and even abused by recipients.
On rare occasions, the Medal of Honor has been issued for individual acts of bravery occurring during peacetime. Capt. Charles A. Lindbergh, for example, received the medal for his “heroic courage and skills as a navigator, at the risk of his life, for his nonstop flight in his airplane from New York to Paris, France, 20-21 May 1927