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National Review
National Review
25 Mar 2023
Dan McLaughlin

NextImg:The Corner: The Medal of Honor’s Anniversary

One-hundred-sixty years ago today, Abraham Lincoln and his secretary of war Edwin Stanton awarded the first six Congressional Medals of Honor. The medal originated in three laws signed by Lincoln, one in late 1861 to create a medal of honor for enlisted men in the Navy, a second in early 1862 to create an parallel medal of honor for enlisted men in the Army, and a third in March, 1863 making Army officers eligible (Navy officers could not receive the medal until 1915). The medal was an American equivalent to the Victoria Cross, instituted by the queen of England during the Crimean War. In Britain, the initial focus on enlisted men reflected the sense of the queen and the public that the aristocratic British army tended to lavish honors on its officers while neglecting the ordinary soldier. For Americans, honoring the common man’s uncommon valor came naturally. Since 1905, it has always been presented in a formal ceremony.

That first ceremony came at a time of great peril for the nation. The Confederacy, seemingly on the ropes in the spring of 1862 after Shiloh and the fall of New Orleans, won a series of stirring victories under Robert E. Lee in the eastern theater of the war, capped by the Union’s disaster at Fredericksburg in December 1862. The war in the west was still going slowly, with Ulysses S. Grant having been appointed to command the Vicksburg campaign only in January 1863, and the campaign just starting in March. The six men honored by Lincoln had recently been released from a Confederate prison after an audacious but failed plan the previous spring to capture a train and ride behind enemy lines destroying bridges and cutting the rail links between Chattanooga and Atlanta. (As it turned out, rail transport to Chattanooga would become a great Union asset later in 1863, but nobody knew that yet).

There is some irony in the institution of these individual honors at the precise point in history when war was becoming more dominated by machinery such as repeating rifles and machine guns, while cavalry was pushed to the margins and the old ideas of chivalry and victory by bravery alone were dying out. The Medal of Honor’s vivid subsequent history, however, demonstrates the enduring need for heroism in warfare, and the fact that Americans have never run out of it. 3,514 men and one woman have won the Medal of Honor in service of their country from the Civil War to the present day. 19 have won it twice. The Army dominates the roll, with 2,465 honorees (including members of the Army Air Corps); 749 have been awarded to members of the Navy, 300 to Marines, 19 to members of the Air Force, and one to a member of the Coast Guard, Douglas Munro, who was killed by enemy fire while piloting his landing craft to evacuate Marines from a beach at Guadalcanal in 1942. Around one in five Medals of Honor have been awarded posthumously; 65 Medal of Honor winners are still living.

To read even a few of these stories is to be staggered with the bravery of these men. The most recent honoree, Paris Davis, was honored for his service as an officer in the Army Special Forces in Vietnam:

On June 18, 1965, Davis, then a captain in the 5th Special Forces Group, was near Camp Bong Son, an American and Army of the Republic of Vietnam base near the central coast, in charge of three other Special Forces members with the 883rd Vietnamese Regional Forces Company. After a successful raid on a Viet Cong regimental headquarters, Davis and his men came under attack. During the hours-long engagement, Davis constantly fought enemy troops while encouraging those around him. Though wounded in the hand from a grenade and in the leg from enemy fire, Davis refused to leave behind two badly injured comrades, Master Sergeant Billy Waugh and Specialist 4 Robert Brown, behind. While he braved fire from both the enemy and from amidst American air support, he ran to pick up Waugh for MEDEVAC and, according to Davis, “carried him fireman style, in a hail of automatic weapon fire, to safety.” Though ordered to leave the fighting, Davis answered, “Sir, I’m just not going to leave. I still have an American out there.” As the battle neared a close, 19 hours after it began, Davis ran across the field of fire to rescue SP4 Brown before final extraction. Waugh recovered from his wounds and continued in the U.S. Special Forces. Brown never recovered from his severe wounds and passed away four years later.

Or consider one of the men honored for a relatively recent action, Christopher Celiz, who received the medal posthumously:

Sergeant First Class Christopher A. Celiz distinguished himself by conspicuous gallantry above and beyond the call of duty while engaged with the enemy in Paktia Province, Afghanistan, on July 12th, 2018. As the leader of a special purpose unit comprised of partnered forces and members of the 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, Sergeant First Class Celiz led an operation to clear an area of enemy forces and thereby disrupt future attacks against the government of Afghanistan and allied forces. Shortly after his team reached their final objectives, a large enemy force attacked, placed effective fire on him and his team, preventing them from maneuvering to counterattack. Realizing the danger the attack posed to his team and the operation, Sergeant First Class Celiz voluntarily exposed himself to intense enemy machine-gun and small-arms fire to retrieve and employ a heavy weapon system, thereby allowing U.S. and partnered forces to regain the initiative, maneuver to a secure location, and begin treatment of a critically wounded partnered force member. As a medical evacuation helicopter arrived, it was immediately engaged by accurate and sustained enemy fire. Knowing how critical it was to quickly load the casualty, Sergeant First Class Celiz willingly exposed himself to heavy enemyfire to direct and lead the evacuation. As the casualty moved from a position of cover and out into intense enemy fire, Sergeant First Class Celiz made a conscious effort to ensure his body acted as a physical shield to his team carrying the casualty and the crew of the aircraft. As the casualty was loaded and Sergeant First Class Celiz’s team returned to cover, he alone remained at the aircraft, returning a high volume of fire and constantly repositioning himself to act as a physical shield to the aircraft and its crew. With his final reposition, Sergeant First Class Celiz placed himself directly between the cockpit and the enemy, ensuring the aircraft was able to depart. As the helicopter lifted off, Sergeant First Class Celiz was hit by enemy fire. Fully aware of his own injury but understanding the peril to the aircraft from the intense enemy machine gun fire, Sergeant First Class Celiz motioned to the aircraft to depart rather than remain behind to load him. His selfless actions saved the life of the evacuated partnered force member and almost certainly prevented further casualties among other members of his team and the aircrew. Throughout the entire engagement, Sergeant First Class Celiz significantly changed the course of battle by repeatedly placing himself in extreme danger to protect his team, defeat the enemy, and it ultimately cost him his life.

Earl Plumlee:

Staff Sergeant Earl D. Plumlee distinguished himself by acts of gallantry above and beyond the call of duty on August 28th, 2013, while serving as a weapons sergeant, C company, 4th Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) in support of Enduring Freedom. Sergeant Plumlee instantly responded to an enemy attack on Forward Operating Base Ghazni—Ghazni Province, Afghanistan —that began with an explosion that tore a 60-foot breach in the base’s perimeter wall. Ten insurgents wearing Afghan National Army uniforms and suicide vests poured through the breach. Sergeant Plumlee and five others mounted two vehicles and raced toward the explosion. When his vehicle was engaged by enemy fire, Sergeant Plumlee reacted instinctively, using his body to shield the driver prior to exiting the vehicle and engaging an enemy insurgent 15 meters to the vehicle’s right with his pistol. Without cover and in complete disregard for his own safety, he advanced on the enemy, engaging multiple insurgents with only his pistol. Upon reaching cover, he killed two insurgents —one with a grenade and the other by detonating the insurgent’s suicide vest using precision sniper fire. Again, disregarding his own safety, Sergeant Plumlee advanced alone against the enemy, engaging several insurgents at close range, including one whose suicide vest exploded a mere seven meters from his position. Under intense enemy fire, Sergeant Plumlee temporarily withdrew to cover, where he joined up with another solider and, together, they mounted another counterattack. Under fierce enemy fire, Sergeant Plumlee again moved from cover and attacked the enemy forces, advancing within seven meters of a previously wounded insurgent who detonated his suicide vest, blowing Sergeant Plumlee back against a nearby wall. Sergeant Plumlee, ignoring his injuries, quickly regained his faculties and reengaged the enemy forces. Intense enemy fire once again forced the two soldiers to temporarily withdraw. Undeterred, Sergeant Plumlee joined a small group of American and Polish soldiers, who moved from cover to once again counterattack the infiltrators. As the force advanced, Sergeant Plumlee engaged an insurgent to his front left. He then swung around and engaged another insurgent who charged the group from the rear. The insurgent detonated his suicide vest, mortally wounding a U.S. soldier. Sergeant Plumlee, again, with complete disregard for his own safety, ran to the wounded soldier, carried him to safety, and rendered first aid. He then methodically cleared the area, remained in a security posture, and continued to scan for any remaining threats.

Alwyn Cashe:

Sergeant First Class Alwyn C. Cashe distinguished himself by acts of gallantry above and beyond the call of duty while serving as Platoon Sergeant with Company A, 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division in Salah Ad Din Province, Iraq, on October 17th, 2005. While on a nighttime mounted patrol near an enemy-laden village, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle which Sergeant First Class Cashe was commanding was attacked by enemy small-arms fire and an improvised explosive device, which disabled the vehicle and engulfed it in flames. After extracting himself from the vehicle, Sergeant First Class Cashe set about extracting the driver, who was trapped in the vehicle. After opening the driver’s hatch, Sergeant First Class Cashe and a fellow soldier extracted the driver, who was engulfed in the flames. During the course of extinguishing the flames on the driver and extracting him from the vehicle, Sergeant First Class Cashe’s fuel soaked uniform, ignited and caused severe burns to his body. Ignoring his painful wounds, Sergeant First Class Cashe then moved to the rear of the vehicle to continue in aiding his fellow soldiers who were trapped in the troop compartment. At this time, the enemy noted his movements and began to direct their fire on his position. When another element of the company engaged the enemy, Sergeant First Class Cashe seized the opportunity and moved into the open troop door and aided four of his soldiers in escaping the burning vehicle. Having extracted the four soldiers, Sergeant First Class Cashe noticed two other soldiers had not been accounted for and again he entered the [vehicle] to retrieve them. At this time, reinforcements arrived to further suppress the enemy and establish a Casualty Collection Point. Despite the severe second-and third-degree burns covering the majority of his body, Sergeant First Class Cashe persevered through the pain to encourage his fellow soldiers and ensure they received needed medical care. When medical evacuation helicopters began to arrive, Sergeant First Class Cashe selflessly refused evacuation until all of the other wounded soldiers were evacuated first.

Then there’s the sole Medal of Honor recipient, Dr. Mary Walker. Her citation:

Whereas it appears from official reports that Dr. Mary E. Walker, a graduate of medicine, “has rendered valuable service to the Government, and her efforts have been earnest and untiring in a variety of ways,” and that she was assigned to duty and served as an assistant surgeon in charge of female prisoners at Louisville, Ky., upon the recommendation of Major-Generals Sherman and Thomas, and faithfully served as contract surgeon in the service of the United States, and has devoted herself with much patriotic zeal to the sick and wounded soldiers, both in the field and hospitals, to the detriment of her own health, and has also endured hardships as a prisoner of war four months in a Southern prison while acting as contract surgeon.

Dr. Walker’s medal was controversial. In 1917, as part of a review of past medals, over 900 were rescinded on grounds that they were inappropriately awarded or not sufficiently supported by evidence; it was restored in 1977 by Jimmy Carter.

You can dig through other such stories at the website of the National Medal of Honor Museum in Arlington, Texas. If you are inclined to despair at times for your country, it is rewarding reading.