On the 31st of July, President Trump will decorate an unassuming gentleman named Jim McCloughan for his gallantry during a vicious fight that occurred in Vietnam on May 15-17, 1969. Jim was a combat medic and is credited with saving the lives of 10 soldiers in spite of being wounded himself. Jim will be presented with the Congressional Medal of Honor, a distinction that relatively few have earned over the course of American History. What about this medal, you might ask? Hopefully, after reading this post, my readers will have a better understanding of what that soft blue ribbon really is all about.
Medals and such, certainly predate America. Napoleon Bonaparte, a warrior of some accomplishment, once remarked, “A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon”. I can personally attest that few folks, in the heat of battle, are thinking about a ribbon, instead their minds are occupied with the nuances of the dance with death they are engaged in, focused on the destruction of their enemy and preservation of the life of the man or woman next to them, as well as themselves. The medals come later and serve to remind the recipient of what he or she was once capable of as a member of America’s military. Most, unfortunately, did not live to bask in this afterglow.
The Medal of Honor came into being as the result off a Bill introduced into congress in 1861 by Iowa Senator J.W. Grimes. President Lincoln inked this bill into law and the Medal of Honor came into existence. The requirements for winning this award have evolved over time, necessary to remove earlier nuisances such as racial and ethnic preclusion to earning this award, and the verification processes that are necessary to insure the medal is truly earned. Today, the standard can be summed up as, “For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life, above and beyond the call of duty, in action involving actual conflict with an opposing armed force”. History has clearly shown that many warriors have performed at this level and, perhaps, earned this recognition without so much as a lesser award or acknowledgement. This is the nature of combat where not every action is recorded or recorded accurately. This disclaimer aside, let’s look at a few numbers.
When Jim McCloughan is draped in this blue ribbon, he will be the 3,499th recipient of America’s highest combat honor. He will be one of 67 living recipients walking among us. Over the course of history, there have been 19 folks, consummate warriors one might say, that have won two Medals of Honor. Among that distinguished group is Lt. Tom Custer, Gen. George Custer’ brother, who won his medals during the Civil War. There were only two double recipients during the Civil War, and by law, it is now impossible to win two Medals of Honor. The Civil War saw a proliferation of awards, with the battle of Vicksburg resulting in the award of 123 Medals of Honor, 96 of which were as the result of fighting during a single day! We should remember that during this Great War, the fighting was often close enough to result in the mixing of blood from both sides in violent hand to hand fighting. The actual numbers of medals won during each war is a moving target, as cases are under review perpetually, thus skewing the numbers as awards are upgraded and rules changed. As an example, President George H.W. Bush awarded a Medal of Honor to a black soldier from WWI, presumably to call attention to the efforts of black soldiers in a time when such things did not happen, no matter the degree of gallantry. In a further effort to remove racism from the Medal of Honor realm, President Bill Clinton awarded 6 Medals of Honor, posthumously, to 6 black soldiers from WWII, in ceremonies in 1997. Again, in an effort to treat all soldiers fairly, regardless of their race or ethnic backgrounds, President Obama awarded 24 Medal of Honor to mostly Jewish and Hispanic soldiers for their actions in WWII, Korea and Vietnam. It should be noted that reviews of the actions of these soldiers began in 1991. Obama conducted these ceremonies on the 18th of March, 2014. Finally, we come to the women who have won this prestigious award, numbering exactly one. A female medical doctor, Dr. Mary Walker, won the Medal of Honor during the civil War, which was subsequently stripped from the record and then reinstated at a later date. Her gallantry during this war is NOT a matter of controversy, leaving only gender to cause her problems. I am certain that as our country evolves, various women will exhibit the courage and gallantry necessary to earn this award, particularly in view of the changing roles of women in armed conflict. Before leaving the realm of numbers, I should mention that during the attack on Pearl Harbor, a total of 16 Medals of Honor were conferred, with 11 of them being posthumously. Finally, I wanted to recognize the coast Guard who has seen the conference of one Medal of Honor to a member, during the battle of Guadalcanal, for his actions along side the Marines who further cemented their legacy as supreme warriors.
On July 31st, when the media presumably features a combat medic who exhibited courage and a sense of mission on an extraordinary plain, I trust America will tune in, and remember that when the going gets tough, really tough, we have among us folks who would rather die than to abandon their mission. Please also remember your brothers, sisters, uncles, parents and grandparents who were there and fought with tenacity but were not fortunate enough to have their gallantry recorded and recognized. A Medal of Honor recipient will not, by himself, win a war, but does serve as a reminder that when cornered, an America warrior will respond and fight to death for this Republic.