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On October 25, 2007, in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, a patrol from 2d Battalion, 503d Infantry Regiment, 173d Airborne Brigade Combat Team, was returning to Combat Outpost Vimoto when it ran into a Taliban ambush. In the intense battle that ensued, Sergeant Joshua Brennan, walking point, was hit multiple times. During the firefight, two Taliban began to drag Brennan away from the kill zone. Specialist Salvatore Giunta, one of the fire team leaders, seeing that the enemy intended to capture his comrade, exposed himself to withering enemy fire and sprinted after the Taliban, killing one and wounding the other, after which he provided medical aid to Sergeant Brennan and dragged him back to safety. For this courageous and selfless act under intense enemy fire, Specialist Giunta was nominated for the Medal of Honor.

On November 16, 2010, Salvatore Giunta, then staff sergeant, received the Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama in a White House ceremony. Giunta became the first living person to receive the nation’s highest decoration for valor for actions that have occurred since the Vietnam War.


When the president placed the medal on its distinctive blue ribbon around Staff Sergeant Giunta’s neck, the young Soldier became a member of one of the most exclusive fraternities in the world. More than 40 million men and women have served in the armed forces of the United States since the beginning of the Civil War, but fewer than 3,500 men and one woman have been awarded the Medal of Honor.

The Medal of Honor is the nation’s highest award for military valor and it can be awarded to Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen. It is presented by the president of the United States in the name of Congress and thus is often mistakenly referred to as the Congressional Medal of Honor. It is awarded for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.” Given the inherently dangerous nature of its criteria, the Medal of Honor is often awarded posthumously.

The Medal of Honor did not exist until the Civil War. However, the idea of recognizing individual acts of bravery dates back to the Revolutionary War. The Badge of Military Merit was established by General George Washington, commander in chief of the Continental Army, on August 7, 1782. The award, which consisted of a purple cloth heart, was designed to recognize “any singularly meritorious action,” and records indicate that only three persons received it.

The Badge of Military Merit fell into disuse after the Revolutionary War, although it would be revived in 1932 as the Purple Heart, which would be awarded to those who had been wounded in World War I and in subsequent conflicts. In the interim, there were several efforts to devise a way to recognize individual valor on the battlefield. In 1847, after the outbreak of the Mexican-American War, a “certificate of merit” was established for those who distinguished themselves during battle, but it was discontinued after the war.

Early in the Civil War, the idea of a medal for bravery on the battlefield was proposed to General Winfield Scott, then Union general in chief, but he rejected the idea because he thought medals smacked of European affectation. However, a similar proposal was presented to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, who endorsed the idea of creating a medal for valorous service for enlisted men in the Navy and Marine Corps. Senator James W. Grimes of Iowa introduced a bill in Congress, which President Abraham Lincoln signed in December 1861.

The next year, a “medal of honor” was created for the Army, largely due to the efforts of Edward D. Townsend, assistant adjutant general, and Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson. The bill creating the Army Medal of Honor was signed into law in July 1862. The medal was to be awarded “to such noncommissioned officers and privates as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action, and other soldier like qualities.”

Although the medal was proposed only for the Civil War, Congress made it permanent in 1863, extending provisions to include officers as well as enlisted men, and making the provisions retroactive to the beginning of the Civil War. The Medal of Honor has remained the highest and most prestigious award that can be presented to members of the U.S. armed forces.


The first act of valor that would be recognized with the Medal of Honor occurred on February 13, 1861, a year before the medal was proposed. Bernard J.D. Irwin, an Army assistant surgeon, led a group of 14 men into Apache Pass, Ariz., to rescue 60 Soldiers surrounded by a band of Indians. However, Irwin would not actually receive the medal until 1894, over 30 years later.

Army Private Francis Edwin Brownell was involved in the first action to merit the Medal of Honor during the Civil War. On May 24, 1861, he killed the murderer of Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth, colonel of the 11th New York Regiment, in Alexandria, Va. However, Brownell would not receive the medal until 1877.

John Williams, captain of USS Pawnee, was the first to receive the Navy Medal of Honor, for his bravery in leaving no man behind in a desperate June 1861 battle off Mathias Point, Va. However, Williams would not receive the medal until April 1863.

On March 25, 1863, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton made the first-ever presentation of the Medal of Honor, presenting one each to six of the surviving members of the famous Andrews’ Raiders. The first to receive the medal was Private Jacob Parrott.

In April 1862, Parrott had been part of the force of 23 military and civilian volunteers led by civilian James J. Andrews that struck deep into Confederate territory at Marietta, Ga. There, Andrews’ Raiders captured an entire train pulled by the locomotive General in an effort to disrupt the lines of transportation between Atlanta, Ga., and Chattanooga, Tenn. The Raiders were pursued by locomotive and eventually captured, after which seven of them, including Andrews, were hanged as spies. Four of those hanged also received the Medal of Honor; they were the first to receive the medal posthumously. In all, 19 of the 24 Andrews’ Raiders were awarded the Medal of Honor, but not Andrews – as a civilian, he was deemed ineligible for the award.

The first Marine to receive the Medal of Honor was John Freeman Mackie, who, while serving on the Union ironclad Galena during the attack on Fort Darling at Drewry’s Bluff, Va., “fearlessly maintained his musket fire against the rifle pits on shore, and when ordered to fill vacancies caused by men wounded and killed in action, manned his weapon with skill and courage.”

During the Civil War, a total of 1,522 Medals of Honor were awarded to Army and Navy personnel, including 17 to enlisted Marines. One of the Civil War recipients was Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, a civilian surgeon with the Union Army. Walker is the only woman to receive the Medal of Honor and one of only eight civilians to receive it.

Second Lieutenant Thomas Custer, brother of George Armstrong Custer, became the first to receive two Medals of Honor for two separate actions during the Civil War. Tom Custer later died with his brother at the Battle of Little Bighorn. Only 13 other people have received two distinct Medals of Honor for two separate actions (five others received both the Army and Navy medals for the same action).

During this early period, there were no detailed criteria or time limits for presentation of the award. Therefore, many Medals of Honor went to individuals who did nothing particularly heroic. For example, President Lincoln authorized the award of the medal to 864 members of 27th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment simply for re-enlisting.


Over time, the requirements became stricter and fewer Medals of Honor were awarded. In 1897, Congress passed legislation to insure that the medal could be awarded only for “gallantry and intrepidity.” Furthermore, nomination for the award had to be made by someone other than the individual being nominated. Additionally, one or more eyewitnesses had to testify under oath about the deed, and the recommendation had to be submitted within one year of the act for which the medal would be awarded.

In September 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt issued an executive order outlining the basic policy for the actual presentation of the Medal of Honor. This order directed that award of the medal “will always be made with formal and impressive ceremonial occasions” and that the recipient will, when practicable, be ordered to Washington, D.C., where the presentation will be made by the president, as commander in chief, or by such representative as the president may designate. If it proved impractical for the recipient to come to Washington, as it eventually would during World Wars I and II, the service chief of staff would designate the time and place for the award ceremony. President Roosevelt presented the first Medal of Honor at the White House to one of his old Rough Rider comrades, U.S. Army Assistant Surgeon James Robb Church, on January 10, 1906, setting the precedent for the White House Medal of Honor ceremonies that continues to this day.

During the period between the Civil War and World War I, U.S. forces fought in a number of conflicts, including the Indian Wars, 1871 Korean Campaign, Spanish-American War, Philippine Insurrection, Boxer Rebellion, and several campaigns in Mexico and Central America. A total of 769 Medals of Honor were awarded during these years. Within this period, two Marines joined the select group who received two Medals of Honor for two separate actions. Major General Smedley D. Butler received his medals for Veracruz (1914) and Haiti (1915), and Sergeant Major Daniel Daly received his for Peking (1900) and Haiti (1915).

In 1916, intending to redress perceived earlier abuses in awarding the medal, the War Department established a Medal of Honor review board. It consisted of five retired general officers headed by Medal of Honor recipient General Nelson A. Miles. The board was charged to consider all 2,625 medals presented by the Army up to that time. It released its findings in 1917, striking the names of 911 Medal of Honor recipients, most from the Civil War, whom the board considered undeserving of the medal. The deleted names included all several hundred men in the 27th Maine who received the medals for re-enlisting; 29 members of President Lincoln’s funeral guard; and six civilians, whose courage was not questioned but who were deemed ineligible for the medal as civilians. Among these were five scouts, including Buffalo Bill Cody, who had served in the Indian Campaigns, and Civil War surgeon Mary Edwards Walker. The medals of Dr. Walker, Cody, and the other scouts were later restored in 1977.


During World War I, 124 Medals of Honor were awarded (95 Army, 21 Navy, and eight Marine Corps), 33 of them posthumously. Famous Medal of Honor recipients from World War I were Sergeant Alvin York, Army Air Corps ace Eddie Rickenbacker, and Lieutenant Colonel William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan (later head of the World War II Office of Strategic Services and “Father of the Central Intelligence Agency”).

In 1921-23, the president signed congressional legislation awarding the Medal of Honor to the Unknown Soldiers of the United States, Britain, France, Italy, Belgium, and Romania. Later, the Medal of Honor was awarded to the American Unknown Soldiers of World War II (1948), Korean War (1957), and Vietnam War (1984).

During 1920-40, Medal of Honor awards continued to be rare, but regulations then still permitted awarding the medal for peacetime bravery and distinguished acts not involving combat. Commander Richard E. Byrd and Warrant Officer Floyd Bennett each received the Medal of Honor for their 1926 flight over the North Pole. Charles Lindbergh was awarded the medal for his famous 1927 trans-Atlantic solo flight from New York to Paris in the Spirit of St. Louis. Four Sailors were awarded the Medal of Honor for risking their lives to save the crew of the sunken American submarine USS Squalus in May 1939. (The Navy had long awarded the medal for non-combat actions. From 1901-11, 48 Navy Medals of Honor were given for actions involving boiler explosions on board ships, shipboard fires and lifesaving.)

With the outbreak of World War II, the award of the Medal of Honor once again focused on recognizing valor above and beyond the call of duty in combat against an armed enemy. The award of the medal remained rare. Even though 16 million Americans served in World War II, fewer than 500 Medals of Honor were awarded (more than half of them posthumously). Among the most famous World War II recipients were Army infantryman Audie Murphy, Marine fighter ace Joe Foss, and Marine John Basilone, whose story was featured in the HBO miniseries The Pacific.

Only one member of the U.S. Coast Guard (under the Department of the Navy in wartime) has ever received the Medal of Honor. Coast Guardsman Douglas Munro was awarded the medal posthumously for his actions at Point Cruz during the Battle of Guadalcanal in September 1942.


In June 1950, the North Korean People’s Army crossed the 38th parallel and invaded South Korea. During the Korean War’s three bloody years of fighting that followed, 133 Medals of Honor, including 42 to Marines, were awarded for heroism (95 of them posthumously). Included among the U.S. Army heroes who received the medal during the Korean War were Captain Lewis L. Millett, Corporal Mitchell Red Cloud and Corporal Rodolfo P. Hernandez.

In 1947, President Harry S. Truman had created the United States Air Force as a separate branch of the armed forces. However, during the Korean War, members of the Air Force who were awarded the Medal of Honor received the Army medal. In 1956, three years after the war’s end, Congress passed legislation establishing the Air Force Medal of Honor, distinct from the Army and Navy medals (Marines continued to receive the Navy medal).

In 1963, Congress again tightened regulations governing the award of the Medal of Honor. The heroic act leading to the nomination for the medal had to occur while the potential recipient was engaged in action against an enemy of the United States, engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing force, or serving with friendly forces in armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States was not a belligerent party.

The first Medal of Honor awarded during the Vietnam War went to Army Special Forces Captain Roger H.C. Donlon for his actions at Nam Dong in July 1964. During the Vietnam War, nearly 250 Medals of Honor were awarded (about half of them posthumously). Donlon was joined on the list of Vietnam War recipients by Marine Major Jay R. Vargas, Air Force Sergeant John Levitow, Admiral James Stockdale, and Bob Kerrey, a Navy SEAL who became governor of Nebraska and U.S. senator.

During the Vietnam War period, there was one exception to the enemy action rule. Commander William McGonagle received the Medal of Honor for his actions while in command of USS Liberty when it was mistakenly attacked by the Israel Defense Forces in the Eastern Mediterranean on June 8, 1967, during the Six Day War.


Since the 1980s, a number of Medals of Honor have been belatedly awarded to correct past administrative errors, oversights, or to consider previous recommendations as a result of new evidence. On July 19, 1980, President Jimmy Carter presented the Medal of Honor to Matt Urban 36 years after Urban had performed numerous acts of valor during the fighting in France and Belgium in World War II. On February 24, 1981, President Ronald Reagan presented the Medal of Honor to Army Sergeant Roy Benavidez for his valor during the Vietnam War. On April 24, 1991, President George H.W. Bush presented the Medal of Honor to the family of World War I hero Corporal Freddie Stowers for his extraordinary and inspirational valor during the 1918 Meuse Argonne Campaign. Stowers was an African-American who was mortally wounded while attempting to destroy a machine gun that had pinned down his unit. The paperwork recommending him for the award had been lost for over 70 years.

In 1993, a special study was commissioned to investigate racial discrimination in the awarding of medals in World War II; no African-Americans had received the Medal of Honor for action during the war. The study concluded with a recommendation that several African-American Distinguished Service Cross recipients be upgraded to the Medal of Honor. On January 13, 1997, President Bill Clinton presented the Medal of Honor to seven African-Americans. Six were posthumous awards; only former 1st Lieutenant Vernon Baker was present to receive the award for action in Italy in 1945.

A similar study was conducted in 1998 to examine the records of Asian-Americans who had served in World War II. On June 21, 2000, President Clinton presented the Medal of Honor to 22 Asian-Americans for their World War II courage, including U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye and 19 Japanese-Americans who had served in the famous 442d Regimental Combat Team in the European Theater of Operations.

Periodically, other additions have been made to the Medal of Honor Roll of Heroes to correct past oversights. On January 21, 2001, President Clinton presented the Medal of Honor posthumously to Theodore Roosevelt for his bravery in the Spanish-American War. Roosevelt thus became one of two sets of father-son Medal of Honor recipients; his son, Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr., had received the medal for his June 6, 1944, actions on D-Day. The other father-son recipients were Arthur MacArthur, for his 1863 heroism during the Civil War, and his son, Douglas MacArthur, for leading the defense of the Philippines early in World War II.

President Clinton also presented Medals of Honor to James Day for heroism in World War II, Robert Ingram and Alfred Rascon for actions in Vietnam, and Andrew Jackson Smith posthumously for gallantry in the Civil War.

President George W. Bush presented Medals of Honor to Ed Freeman, Bruce Crandall, Jon Swanson, and Humbert Versace

(the last two posthumously) for Vietnam, to Ed Salomon for World War II, and to Woodrow Keeble (the first full-blooded Sioux to receive the Medal of Honor) and Tibor Rubin for the Korean War. Rubin was a Jewish veteran and Holocaust survivor who some believed was originally overlooked for the medal due to anti-Semitism.

On May 2, 2011, President Barack Obama presented posthumous Medals of Honor to the families of Army Privates 1st Class Henry Svehla and Anthony T. Kaho’ohanohano. Both awards were for valorous acts performed by the men as riflemen in the Korean War.


The award of the Medal of Honor has been exceedingly rare for conflicts since the end of the Vietnam War. There were no awards of the medal during Grenada, Panama, Lebanon or Desert Storm. Two Medals of Honor were awarded for action in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993: Master Sergeant Gary Gordon and Sergeant 1st Class Randy Shughart received the medal posthumously for their actions during the fighting recounted in the book and movie Blackhawk Down.

At present, only four Medals of Honor have been awarded for valor in the Iraq War, all posthumously: Marine Jason Dunham, Army Private Ross McGinnis, Navy SEAL Michael Monsoor and Army Sergeant Paul Smith. Similarly, only seven Medals of Honor have been awarded in the Afghanistan War, three posthumously (Army Sergeants Robert Miller and Jared Monti and Navy SEAL Michael Murphy). After Staff Sergeant Giunta became the first living recipient presented the Medal of Honor for action since the Vietnam War, he has been joined by Army Staff Sergeants Leroy A. Petry and Clinton Romesha and Marine Sergeant Dakota Meyer. Petry and Meyer received their Medals of Honor from President Obama during White House ceremonies in 2011, while Romesha received his in 2013.

The Medal of Honor is the ultimate symbol of courage and valor under fire and is awarded to only the bravest of the brave; as such, the medal and its recipients are rightfully objects of awe and veneration. It is such an extraordinary honor that President Harry S. Truman, himself a Soldier in World War I, reportedly said, “I’d rather wear that medal than be president of the United States.”

The Medal of Honor is the epitome of valor and selfless service, and many who received the medal made the supreme sacrifice – giving their lives – in that service. The recipients of the Medal of Honor are officers and enlisted men from all branches of the service. They come from all walks of life and from many different ethnic backgrounds and cultures. They come from all over the country, and even some foreign lands. They come from every armed service and have seen action in America’s wars from the Civil War to Afghanistan. Despite all these differences, the recipients of the Medal of Honor all share one thing in common. At some point in their lives, they selflessly performed extraordinarily courageous acts in the face of almost insurmountable odds – deeds that were clearly “above and beyond the call of duty.”

More often than not, those who survived to receive their Medals of Honor accepted them in honor of their comrades who fought and sometimes died in the defense of their nation. Perhaps Canadian-born Vietnam hero and Medal of Honor recipient Peter Lemon summed this up best when he told a group of young students, “Whenever you see the medal, you see millions of people out there who have given their service and sacrificed for your freedom.” In that sense, the Medal of Honor is not only a tribute to those who received it, but it is also a testament to the dedication and duty to all who have served the nation.

James H. Willbanks, PhD, is an “ACG” advisory board member, the General of the Army George C. Marshall Chair of Military History, and Director of the Department of Military History at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kan. He is the author of several books on the Vietnam War, including “Abandoning Vietnam,” “The Battle of An Loc” and “The Tet Offensive: A Concise History.” He is also the editor of “America’s Heroes: Medal of Honor Recipients From the Civil War to Afghanistan.”

Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Armchair General.