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The Medal of Honor is the highest award for military valor bestowed by the United States of America, and has earned a rightful place in the popular culture of our nation. In a country where there is often a significant gap between the military community and civilian populace, the Medal of Honor reaches beyond the cultural gatekeeping of military service to the nation as a whole: Whether you have an affiliation with the United States military or not, we all recognize the award as representative of some of America’s most important ideals: bravery, courage, sacrifice, and integrity.

But beyond the basic premise of the award, many may not know much about the history of America’s greatest military honor.

It was invented by an Iowa Senator

James W. Grimes (WikiMedia Commons)

James Grimes, a Whig and then Republican Senator our of Iowa, held office during America’s Civil War and beyond, working first to prevent the war and then as a part of reconstruction thereafter. In December of 1861, with the Civil War raging, Grimes submitted a bill authorizing the issuance of “medals of honor” to be presented to enlisted Seamen and Marines who “distinguish themselves by gallantry in action and other seamanlike qualities” during the conflict.

Today’s Medals of Honor have seen significant changes since Senator Grimes first proposed them, both aesthetic and legislative, but the intent behind the award remains unchanged. Since the very inception of this nation, service members have fought to defend their nation’s populace, and the freedom they hold so dear. This service warrants recognition in itself, but among these warriors are those who go even further, who risk greatly on behalf of others, who make sacrifices for their brothers and sisters in uniform, for their nation, and for us all. These pivotal characters deserve a higher distinction than more pervasive awards for valor. These heroes deserve the Medal of Honor.

The first battle that earned a Medal of Honor happened before the medal existed

(WikiMedia Commons)

On February 13, 1861, Bernard J. D. Irwin (later, Brigadier General Irwin) was the first person to earn a Medal of Honor in battle, though the award itself would not be proposed for nearly another year.

Irwin and 14 of his men pursued a group of Native Americans who had taken American troops hostage. Irwin and his men caught up with the group, and rather than immediately engaging, he quickly and quietly distributed his troops around the area, allowing him to act as though he had a far larger force with him than it seemed.

The ruse worked, and the Native Americans fled, leaving Irwin and his team to recover most of the hostages. They then pursued the captors until successfully recovering a kidnapped boy, the last hostage. Irwin wouldn’t be presented with the Medal of Honor for his heroism until more than three decades later.

Officers were not eligible

With Medals of Honor established for the Navy and Marines, and another for the Army by 1863, it wasn’t until March of that year that Army officers became eligible for the award. Officers in the Navy and Marine Corps wouldn’t become eligible for nearly fifty more years.

There are actually three different Medals of Honor

(SOCOM image)

The first Medals of Honor, as proposed by Senator Grimes, were specifically for enlisted Sailors and Marines in 1861. The Army followed suit, establishing their own Medal of Honor in 1862. The U.S. Air Force would not have a Medal fo Honor for nearly another century, first introduced in 1965.

Today, there is one Medal of Honor for the Army, one for the Air Force, and one for the Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard.

What does it take to earn a Medal of Honor?

medal of honor
President Barack Obama presents the Medal of Honor to retired U.S. Army Capt. Florent Groberg during a ceremony at the White House in Washington, Nov. 12, 2015. Groberg received the medal for actions during a combat engagement in Kunar province, Afghanistan. (U.S. Army photo)

The short answer is, performing above and beyond the call of duty in the face of danger tends to be the sort of action that leads to receiving a Medal of Honor. The formal language established by Congress in 1963 says it can be awarded for heroism:

  • While engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States
  • While engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force
  • While serving with friendly forces engaged in armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party

The U.S. Army took back 911 Medals of Honor

medal of honor
(U.S. Army photo)

New designs and regulations pertaining to the Medal of Honor continued to find their way into the books, prompting the U.S. Army to revisit each of the Medals of Honor they had awarded in the past. An Army board was convened, tasked with pouring over the reports and associated documents relating to each Medal of Honor awarded to Soldiers in their branch.

By 1917, the audit was complete, and the U.S. Army had removed 911 Medals of Honor from Soldier’s service records, saying that they had been “erroneously bestowed.”

It comes with a paycheck

medal of honor
President Donald Trump awards the Medal of Honor to Sgt. Maj. Thomas “Patrick” Payne at the White House, Washington, D.C., Sept. 11, 2020. Payne was awarded the medal for his actions while serving as an assistant team leader deployed to Iraq as part of a special operations joint task force in support of Operation Inherent Resolve on Oct. 22, 2015. (Photo Credit: Spc. Zachery Perkins)

There are a number of military and civilian benefits associated with being awarded the Medal of Honor, and at least two come in the form of cold hard cash.

Living Medal of Honor recipients received a monthly pension of $1,406.73, as well as a supplemental clothing allowance of $841.36 once a year. Medal of Honor recipients also see a 10% increase in their retirement pay.

In 2013, timeliness became a factor

medal of honor
Sgt. 1st. Class Leroy Petry describes in detail the combat action of May 26, 2008, near Paktya, Afghanistan, during which he distinguished himself by conspicuous gallantry in saving the lives of two fellow Rangers. (DoD photo by R. D. Ward)

Rules and regulations pertaining to the Medal of Honor continued to mature over the decades. By 2013, Congress voted on new rules for how and when the award can be bestowed.

Today, a Medal of Honor recipient must be recommended for the award within just three years of the combat action prompting the recommendation, and the award must be presented within five. It’s important to note, however, that exceptions can be made through legislation, as may soon be the case with former U.S. Army Soldier Alwyn Cashe.

Alex Hollings

Alex Hollings is a writer, dad, and Marine veteran who specializes in foreign policy and defense technology analysis. He holds a master’s degree in Communications from Southern New Hampshire University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Corporate and Organizational Communications from Framingham State University.

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