On March 25, 2003, 1st Lt. Brian Chontosh and his platoon drove into an ambush of mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons fire while traveling on a highway toward Baghdad.
Realizing the road ahead was blocked and taking heavy fire, Chontosh ordered his vehicle to drive directly at the enemy position.
According to his Navy Cross award citation, Chontosh exited the vehicle and began to engage the enemy with his rifle and pistol. He repeatedly exhausted his ammunition but continued to press forward using discarded enemy weapons and eventually led his platoon through the ambush.
“When his audacious attack ended, he had cleared over 200 meters of the enemy trench, killing more than 20 enemy soldiers and wounding several others,” Chontosh’s Navy Cross citation reads.
Several years have passed since Chontosh returned home from Iraq, but the fight on Capitol Hill continues over whether he and several other U.S. military members who served during Operation Iraqi Freedom deserve consideration for the Congressional Medal of Honor.
The Medal of Honor is the nation’s highest military honor, signifying extraordinary acts of valor. But to date, no living veteran of the war in Iraq has been presented the medal and only four have been awarded posthumously — and some of those who served in the conflict are asking why.
World War II, Korea and Vietnam brought hundreds of Medals of Honor: 472, 146 and 258 respectively. Twelve Medals of Honor have been given to veterans of the war in Afghanistan and the 13th will be awarded on Thursday.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican, argues that the actions of several Iraq veterans deserve the distinguished recognition as well. Hunter wrote letters to then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates asking for Iraq war veterans, including Chontosh, to be considered for the Medal of Honor to no avail.
“The fact that there’s not a single living recipient of the Medal of Honor from the war in Iraq is a mystery,” Hunter said.
“There are countless examples of extreme valor during intense, close-quarter combat, but for some reason, starting with the (George W.) Bush administration, there was a concerted effort to not recognize acts of courage with the Medal of Honor,” he said.
In a 2010 interview with CNN’s Barbara Starr, Gates said the decrease in medals reflects a change in warfare.
“I think part of the reason is the nature of war today in the sense, our enemies generally use weapons at a distance from us. So, there’s less hand-to-hand or in-close combat than there has been in previous wars,” Gates said, referring to the type of actions that have traditionally been honored in past conflicts.
Hunter, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, strongly rejected this reasoning.
“To say that there is not one act of valor that is consistent with the requirements for the Medal of Honor is a real disservice to every service person who fought and sacrificed,” Hunter said.
According to military standards, the Medal of Honor is awarded to an individual who performed a deed of “personal bravery” that was “beyond the call of duty” and “involved risk of life” during a conflict against an enemy of the United States.
“This is a process that has become overly politicized and while this administration has at least gone to greater lengths to recognize courage in Afghanistan, we still don’t have a single living recipient from Iraq, and it’s definitely not because they don’t exist,” Hunter said.
Last year, then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel launched a comprehensive review of the process for awarding medals, which his successor, Ashton Carter, is expected to complete.
Many Iraq war veterans say they don’t measure or compare wars based on the number of medals awarded, however, and see the Medal of Honor as purely an individual designation of the highest level of heroism.
“There is no ‘conflict quota’ for medals,” said Sgt. Thomas Barnes, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq’s Anbar province in 2009. “The command elements are concerned with achieving mission objectives, and everything else is secondary.”
“We recognize excellence when we see it and if no one is recognized for a particular award, then the standards simply were not met,” said Barnes, reflecting the way many of his fellow Marines and soldiers in Iraq feel about the nation’s highest military honor.
“Just because a service member acts heroically doesn’t mean they deserve the Congressional Medal of Honor,” he said.
Rather than focusing on which wars’ veterans are being honored, Bill Rausch, a former Army major who was deployed to Iraq in 2007, said the veteran community values the selflessness demonstrated by those who are recognized and the example their heroism sets.
“Regardless of an individual’s experience in or out of uniform, the Medal of Honor symbolizes being true to one’s military values and being willing to put one’s life on the line for something they believe in,” said Rausch, now political director for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, an organization of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But he added that he would be happy not to see any more medals awarded, despite their deep meaning.
“We’d all love to see zero Medals of Honor awarded because that would mean we would no longer be at war,” Rausch said.