For 1st Lt. John O. Merrill, the fateful moment came in the skies over Mayen, Germany in February 1945, when he continued to fly his burning, flak-riddled B-26 bomber until all of his crew could bail out.
Capt. Ernie Arzabal’s setting was different -- Vietnam, 1970 -- but the story familiar. Flying a light observation helicopter, Arzabal “repeatedly exposed himself” to enemy fire in order to rescue wounded American troops.
These actions earned both men the Distinguished Flying Cross, a decoration given to a relative handful of soldiers since Charles Lindbergh won the first for his trans-Atlantic solo flight in 1927. Since then, through World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf and all the engagements in between, right through the Afghan campaign, only 3,300 DFC’s were awarded, according to the Distinguished Flying Cross Society, an organization of DFC recipients.
Yet since March 2002, the Air Force has awarded 463 of these coveted decorations, angering some veterans and rekindling a debate over how and why these honors are bestowed.
More than 69,000 awards and other honors have been handed out by the Air Force for the Iraq war, according to Air Force Capt. Richard Johnson. The list also includes four Air Force Crosses, one step below the Medal of Honor, plus 21 Silver Stars and over 1,900 Bronze Stars.
“It’s absolutely outrageous,” says retired Army Col. David Hackworth, who styles himself as the most decorated soldier in U.S. military history as well as the unofficial watchdog of military heraldry.
“In World War II, when I saw a Distinguished Flying Cross, that meant the guy had made 25 or 30 missions over dangerous places like Hamburg or Berlin,” he says. “Those places sometimes had 50 percent casualty rates.
“Now, they give medals out to guys who fly bombers invisible to radar whose bombs miss Saddam and kill civilians in a restaurant. It’s an outrage.” The Air Force awarded Distinguished Flying Crosses to the crew of a B-2B bomber that destroyed a Baghdad restaurant last April thought to contain Saddam Hussein. Saddam was not there, but 16 civilians, including an infant, died in the attack.
Hackworth, who fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam – and appears ready to go to Iraq at any moment – has made his share of enemies over the years. His years of combat in Vietnam turned him into a scathing critic of the U.S. military’s brass and won him a reputation for shooting from the hip. In 1996, he threatened to expose then-Chief of Naval Operations Mike Boorda for wearing decorations he did not win. Boorda killed himself.
But Hackworth's concerns are shared by more conventional heroes.
Col. Jack Jacobs, who received the nation’s highest medal, the Medal of Honor, during his Vietnam years, agrees with some of the criticism.
“It’s an age old problem with the Army and the Air Force, too,” he says. “The authority to approve most awards is at a very low level, and that has a tendency to increase their frequency. Plus, there’s always a political motive, or component, to giving out awards, to keep morale high and create a positive story for the home front.”
Capt. Johnson, who works at the U.S. Central Air Force’s (CENTAF) awards processing unit at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina, argues that it is not valid to take a medal like the DFC and compare what it took to get one in 1945 with the actions that lead commanders to nominate their troops for one today.
“The responsibility is on individual commanders out in the field to nominate their subordinates,” the captain says. “There are standards for each decoration, and they are clearly laid out. If a board of review determines the action meets those standards, the award is approved.”
Indeed, medals controversies are as old as the U.S. military.
Back in the early days of World War II, just after American troops landed in North Africa in 1942, two generals traveled to the front and promptly issued about 60 officers with the Legion of Merit – Officer Degree, an extremely high honor meant for senior officers. Just about none of those receiving the medal met the qualifications for it, however. As the Army’s own official history recounts, “President Roosevelt was annoyed, however, he did not rescind the awards.”
"Generals and other officers have been putting themselves in for medals their dead troops really deserved since the dawn of time,” says a senior Marine officer. “There may be no way to stop it, because it is human nature.”
The Marines, however, appear to have found a way to keep inflation in check.
Stephen Mackey, director of the Marine Corps medals and decorations branch, says the Corps has issued no Silver Stars or Navy Crosses to date for Iraq war service.
“We have a good number of medals in the pipeline, and it represents about the right scale given the scope and fighting the Marines did,” he says.
Medals to date include 200 Bronze Stars, 447 Purple Hearts, a number of air and commendation medals. A bit over 1,000 in all.
“You look at the Air Force and the number of medals it’s giving out, and then you look at the Marines, who still apply reasonable standards,” grumbles Hackworth. You can’t tell me that these Air Force guys have seen more blood and fire than the Marines who fought their way all the way to Baghdad.”
"Thank God for the Marines," says a retired Navy officer. "They haven't changed their uniforms or their world view in 50 years. Why should they change the way they hand out medals?"
By far the most controversial case in the current war involves Army Private Jessica Lynch and her unit, which became lost in Iraq and later surrendered after a firefight in which 11 of her comrades died.
Clarence Pressgrove, who was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross recently decades after he risked his life to save the crew of his B-29 bomber, expressed the outrage that many veterans felt after Lynch and other members of her 507th Maintenance Company convoy were given Bronze Stars.
Speaking on a Florida radio talk show just after being awarded his own medal, Pressgrove said Lynch “was used as a pawn by some very powerful people.”
“She didn’t deserve or earn this medal,” he said.
Jacobs, now an MSNBC military analyst, says the idea of giving medals to units who get lost or wind up captured is a relatively new phenomenon.
“The guys flying the EP-3 over China got medals, and so did those soldiers who drove the wrong way and wound up captured by Serbians during the Kosovo war,” he says. “It’s like Jessica Lynch, which is a perfect example of the political motive, of using war as a promotion medium. Sell the idea to the public that it’s heroic, then you hand out some awards, and you cheapen them by doing that.”
In fact, another officer close to the Lynch case says senior Army officers were split fairly evenly over the issue of whether some in her unit should have been disciplined or even court-martialed for their conduct in captivity.
Lynch herself has criticized the inflated accounts of her captivity and rescue proffered by Pentagon spokesmen during the war. And like her fellow captive and Pfc. Shoshana Johnson, she rejects the idea that she is a hero.
"When people put that label on me, I reject it wholeheartedly," Johnson told a Black History Month celebration on Long Island last week. "The real heroes are the young men who rescued me, the soldiers who paid the ultimate price...”