Why the Medal of Honor is More Important Under Biden in 2021
The Medal of Honor and the 69 living men who hold it will be of even greater importance to our country under President Biden that under President Trump. Restoring the United States to health after the apocalyptic events of 2020 will require positive action on many fronts. Like the Army Rangers on D Day in 1944, the Medal of Honor Men can “lead the way.”
Having worked on the Presidential Transition Team that transitioned the Presidency from President Reagan to President Bush, I have some understanding of the importance of "revered groups" of Americans helping set the tone for our nation during times of change.
During this transition period, the recipients of the Medal of Honor (MOH) can serve their country today at home just as they did on the battlefields of Iraq, Normandy, and Iwo Jima, boosting the morale and confidence of the 73 million Americans who voted to re-elect the President, while reassuring all of America that our nation, while enjoying unusual peace abroad, can also enjoy peace and unity at home.
The living Medal of Honor holders tend to be more Republican than Democrats.
They also tend to be older rather than younger and reflect well of today's America where 6 out of 10 citizens do not have a college degree and 40% live with at least one firearm in their homes for protection and or hunting. This great majority of Americans listen carefully when the holders of the "American Gold Medal" speak or send signals based on where they gather and with whom they meet.
What is the legacy of those in this “Medal of Honor Game”? Starting in 1861 Abraham Lincoln began acknowledging individuals for their gallantry in action at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty. Today, the Medal of Honor is the United State’s most prestigious and highest military decoration. Once known as the Congressional Medal of Honor, the official name of the current award is “The Medal of Honor.”
The medal comes in three different designs, one for The Army, one for the Navy / US Marine Corps, and one for the Air Force. For over 60 years, it has only been presented to the holders by the President of the United States. During World War II, a few holders were presented their medals in Europe or in Asia. In those days some even returned to their units for additional combat like John Basilone and Walter Ehlers. Mr. Ehlers once told me “I could not find in the Army handbook anything about a holder of any kind of medal being excused from additional combat duty.“ He buried in 2014 with a bullet in his leg from a wound received in 1945.
It is interesting to note that Texas A&M University has produced more Medal of Honor recipients than any university except West Point. Seven in total. All graduated between 1937 and 1943.
The brave Americans who hold the Medal of Honor (MOH) today span World War II, Korean, Vietnam, and today's ongoing War on Terror. There are 2 remaining from World War II, 4 from Korean, 48 from Vietnam, and 14 from the War on Terror. The latest member of America's most exclusive military club is 35-year-old Army Ranger Thomas “Patrick” Payne. He received the great honor for helping liberate over 70 hostages from an ISIS prison compound in Iraq.
Over the past 15 years, I have had the privilege of traveling with and getting to know several holders of the medal well, including our daughter's Godfather Walter Ehlers. He survived his Medal of Honor action above Omaha Beach, fighting the Germans in the Hedgerows in 1944. And, Hershel "Woody" Williams the youngest of 11 children from a dairy farm in West Virginia.
The day the Marines raised the flag over Iwo Jima, he was busy taking out seven Japanese pillboxes at close range using only a flamethrower. I have had recent conversations with Lieutenant Colonel Will Swenson. His Army column was ambushed and surrounded on three sides in Afghanistan in 2009. And, I have gotten to know MOH Veterans who are on our National Board of Directors at State Funeral for World War II Veterans.
I have found that the Medal of Honor recipients are a good-humored group. In 2007 I was standing at dinner reception with four men sporting that beautiful blue ribbon the gold medal attached. One man walked away, and another holder blurted out "that guy is a submarine driver. How in the hell did he get one of these." with a hearty laugh. However, the deep distrustful divide in our beloved nation today is no joking matter.
As the Medal approaches its 160th birthday it is worth nothing that 3,525 American's have been awarded the medal, but in 1917 the honor was withdrawn from 910 recipients, including the 864 men from the 27th Maine Infantry Regiment who received it en masse and the honor guard accompanying Lincolns body home after his assassination.
In the first World War Douglas MacArthur, the son of a Medal of Honor holder from the Civil War, was the most decorated United States Army soldier. He served with the famous 42nd ("Rainbow") Division. It was called that because the soldiers came from all across the USA. He would Jump out of trenches and lead men into battle with no more than a riding crop. For his actions in the war, MacArthur earned seven Silver Stars, two Distinguished Service Crosses, one Distinguished Service Medal, two wounded chevrons, two Croix de Guerre, and was appointed commandeur of the Legion d’honeur.
In the Second War, he received the same medal as his father, the Congressional Medal of Honor making them the only father and son team to have received our nation's highest military award. Another best known MOH man from World War I was Alvin York of Tennessee. He received his medal for leading an attack on a German machine gun nest, taking at least one machine gun, killing at least 25 enemy soldiers, and capturing 132.
Between World War I and World War II, America was marked by a time of postwar disillusionment as well as the gaiety of the flapper era. Throughout the 1920s, the Medal of Honor was still awarded, mostly to members of the Navy who performed non-combat acts above the call of duty. An example is William Huber who served in the Navy in World War I and World War II, although his medal came during a time of peace on June 11, 1928.
During this peacetime, William was a machinist on the USS Bruce that was stationed at the shipyard in Norfolk, Virginia. In the early morning on June 11th, there was a massive explosion in the ship’s boiler room. William Huber showed his act of courage when he carried several of his fellow crewmates to safety and continued to do so even with serious burns on his whole body.
Another example of non-combat heroism during this period is when John Mihalowski and three other Navy divers received the MOH after making several trips down below the water's surface to save the crew of the USS Squalus when it sank in 1939. During this interwar period in the world, Congress had awarded the honor to many other heroic patriots such as Admiral Richard Byrd and Floyd Bennett who made the first flight over the North Pole in 1926.
One year later, Charles Lindbergh was awarded the Medal of Honor for his flight from New York to Paris in his plane, the Spirit of St. Louis. Part of his medal citation stated that he displayed “heroic courage and skill as a navigator, at risk of his life.”
The coming of the Second World War would end the practice of awarding the medal to noncombatants and place it once and for all in the crucible of battle. The holders in the future would be famous for annihilating the enemy, saving their fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines, or both.
As a nation, we just watched the events surrounding the 79th anniversary of the unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbor by the Empire of Japan on December 7, 1941. For their actions during the attack on Pearl Harbor, 15 sailors in the U.S. Navy (from seven different ships) were awarded the Medal of Honor. As noted below, the 16th Medal of Honor was awarded to a Marine for an encounter that day, at a Naval Air Station on Sand Island in the Hawaiian Islands, with units of the same Japanese attack fleet. The 16 recipients held a wide range of ranks, from seaman to rear admiral. Eleven (69%) received their awards posthumously.
The 14 recent "War on Terror" Medal of Honor men are similar, yet different, from the 473 men who received the Medal from 1941 to 1945 and the two that remain today. Today's group are much more likely to be college-educated and all belonged to an all-volunteer fighting force. The American GI's were primarily draftees, as 5 star Army General George Marshall surged our military from less than 200,000 men and officers in 1931 to the 16 million that finally served in uniform before Japan and German were defeated.
These were the "citizen soldiers" not a professional army as we are blessed to have today. These were the church-going sons and grandsons of "Johnny Reb" and "Billy Yank." The most decorated WW2 soldiers tended to be either athletes or rural boys who were raised in the woods, hunting, and hiking. Our daughter's Godfather Uncle Ehlers always told us "I survived because of the Lord and poor German marksmanship." He was from a farm in Kansas.
The post 9/11 warriors tend to be less religious and unlikely to have sent half their pay home to help build new churches as some World War II servicemen did during the 4 years America was at war. But, both groups were underestimated by their opponents. Hitler and the Emperor of Japan were confident that these spoiled sons of democracy were no match for the sons of dictatorship. Needless to say, they were wrong, just as the Taliban, ISIS, and Iranians were wrong about our women and men motivated by the attack of 9/11/2000.
So what can be the role of the Medal of Honor holders during this Presidential Transition period? On June 6, 1944, American Army General Norman Cotta was trying to rally the Americans on bloody Omaha Beach. To do so, he said time and time again. "Rangers lead the way." Today, we call on the Medal of Honor recipients to "lead the way" to reassure our country that our institutions are strong and to encourage unity. To let their fellow Americans, know that the 100 plus nights of violence, chaos, and anarchy in some cities during the summer of 2020 is not our destiny. To let them know there is no call to “defund our military.”
Their voice can be powerful to underscore and reassure that the Biden-Harris administration will not “turn back the clock” on the fresh accountability brought to the Veterans Administration during the past four years. Incoming Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough, an outstanding bi-partisan choice, will make it so.
In my lifetime four incumbent Presidents have been beaten at the polls, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Donald Trump. The recounts and razor-thin margin in states like Georgia and Arizona, and the overall contested nature of the November 2020 election sets it apart from the Ronald Reagan landslide in 1980, or the more genteel 1992 transfer of power from the 41st President Bush to the Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton.
Perhaps we should heed the words of Jefferson J DeBlanc of the United States Marine Corps and a recipient of what many call America's Gold Medal. "Use the gifts God gave you wisely. Be positive, have self-esteem, and reflect patriotism when dealing with your fellow Americans."
Honoring the military is still a powerful value among our citizens. In American today there is plenty of talk and some action to "defund the police", but no call to "defund our military." All the more reason that the MOH heroes can and should speak out.
Some Medal of Honor men had a difficult time with President Obama, especially over promises made regarding military benefits and payments to retirees. But, just as President George Herbert Walker Bush set a different path and tone than President Reagan, President Biden will be his own man. He will be wise to visibly meet during this transition with a cross-section of these unique men known for their service and sacrifice. And, his son Beau Biden served a year-long stint in Iraq on active duty before dying of cancer. This gives him a tie to these hero’s that President Obama and President Trump did not possess.
As Alamo commander William Barret Travis wrote in his 1836 Victory or Death Letter "I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism & everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid, with all dispatch." It is time for our Medal of Honor leaders to not take a political stance, but use words, deeds, and action to take a unifying America stance by reassuring their fellow Americans that all can be well. That we still are "one nation under God."