Clint Romesha ran through a hail of bullets and RPGs as 300 Taliban fighters pressed a massive attack on Outpost Keating in Afghanistan on Oct. 3, 2009. The Taliban had the high ground and poured fire onto the few dozen soldiers in the remote camp in Nuristan Province.
In his memoir, Romesha described the attack on the low-lying outpost as “like being in a fishbowl or fighting from the bottom of a paper cup.”
Throughout the daylong battle, Romesha sprinted between his soldiers to aid the wounded, deliver ammo, and rally the spirits of younger soldiers stunned at the ferocity of the attack. He manned a series of weapons, from his M-4 rifle to a Soviet SVD Dragunov sniper rifle. When three Taliban broke through into Keating, Romesha killed each one and, following that, called in airstrikes that turned the tide of the battle.
After the battle, Romesha was awarded the Medal of Honor, as was Staff Sgt. Ty Carter, who also spent much of the battle sprinting between soldiers to deliver ammunition and treat wounded. The battle for Outpost Keating marked the first since Operation Gothic Serpent in 1993 — the battle in Mogadishu that inspired Black Hawk Down — in which two American servicemen were awarded the Medal of Honor, and the first since Vietnam in which both recipients survived.
The award, says Romesha, is both an honor but also puts its recipients in a unique club that is both well known by nearly all military members and one that no soldier sets out to join.
“We’re recipients of the award. It’s not like we threw our names in the hat, and they picked us out of the lottery. It wasn’t like you woke up every day training to achieve that,” said MOH recipient Clint Romesha. “It was just that you happened to do something that someone thought was valorous at a moment in time.”
The Medal of Honor is the U.S.’s highest valor award, the subset of decorations given to military members who fight with distinction in combat, from legendary heroics like that of Romesha and Carter to smaller acts of courage and skill under fire.
All such awards, says Romesha, are earned in combat less for bravery and skill than for “not wanting to let your buddies down.” It’s facing an overwhelming scenario with courage, or at least determination, because you don’t want to fail those on your left and right.
“It comes when there is no clear right choice, but you choose to do something, anything, knowing it probably won’t end well, but you do it anyway,” Romesha said.
From the rarest to the more common, here are the U.S. military’s valor awards.
Medal of Honor
The Medal of Honor was the first longstanding valor award authorized for the U.S. military. Since World War II, the Medal has been the highest valor award any sailor, soldier, Marine, airman, or guardian can receive. The Navy, Army, and Air Force award the medal, but each branch has a unique design. Marines and Coast Guard are awarded the Navy version, and Space Force guardians are eligible for the Air Force version.
The Medal was authorized by Public Law 88–77, which centralized all of the MOHs under the same criteria on July 25, 1963.
Since its inception, 3,536 MOHs have been awarded, with many of them issued during the Civil War. Beginning in World War II, it has been awarded far more rarely, often posthumously, and always for extraordinarily violent combat.
As a result, living winners often describe the Medal as both an honor and a burden.
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“The amount of sacrifice and heartache that also comes along with it. It’s that bittersweet mixture of both things,” Romesha said. “If you could give it all back to change the situation, even though the reality of it isn’t possible, anyone given that choice would do it in a heartbeat, right? To get their buddies back, to do all that.”
Romesha described the moment of do or die as a “Braveheart moment” where a true warrior strives to prove themselves in combat, though they don’t necessarily seek it out. But the motivation behind it all is “weird” because it can be motivated by not wanting to be known as the guy who failed to act.
“In moments like that, when you’re faced with that challenge, you don’t want to be that guy that doesn’t rise to that occasion. You’re not really doing it because you’re Superman or anything,” Romesha said. “You’re just doing it because you know you don’t want to let your buddies down because they don’t want to let you down — you don’t want to be labeled as that guy.”
Duane Hackney flew in his first combat mission three days after arriving in Vietnam as a newly-trained Air Force Pararescuemen. He was wounded by a .30-caliber slug to the leg during that first mission. As they flew, he asked a fellow pararescueman to remove the bullet so the helicopter would not have to land and cancel their mission.
As his time in Vietnam continued and his missions piled up, he survived several missions in which his helicopter was shot down, one of which became a legendary story in the Air Force and resulted in Hackney becoming the first living enlisted Airman to receive the Air Force Cross.
“I’m always asked, were you scared in Vietnam?” said Hackney, who died in 1993 after retiring as a Chief Master Sgt. “Does a bear do it in the woods, ya know? Yeah, I was — everybody was. There’s always fear there. The person that says they weren’t afraid in Vietnam, they are liars or complete idiots.”
On Feb. 6, 1967. Hackney was on a combat search and rescue mission for a downed pilot near Mu Gia Pass in North Vietnam. Hackney rode the helicopter’s winch into the jungle and brought the pilot aboard. The crew was sprinting back to safety when the helicopter was hit by anti-aircraft gunfire.
Hackney took off his parachute and strapped it to the recovered pilot. Just as he grabbed a reserve parachute, another anti-aircraft round ripped through the fuselage, igniting the fuel of the helicopter and blowing Hackney out of the helicopter.
Though not fully strapped into the parachute, he managed to hold on and pull its ripcord, which landed him safely on the ground. He was the only crew member of the helicopter to survive. Despite shrapnel wounds and severe burns, Hackney evaded Vietcong units searching for him until he was rescued by a fellow PJ on another rescue helicopter.
For the mission, Hackney was awarded the Air Force Cross, the Air Force’s version of a service cross, the U.S.’s second-highest valor award.
Each service branch has its own service cross: the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross, the Navy Cross for sailors, Marines, and Coastguardmen, and the Air Force Cross for airmen and Space Force guardians.
The Army’s Distinguished Service Cross is the oldest valor award in this tier. It was first authorized in 1918 to honor valourous acts of the highest degree that didn’t meet the criteria for the Medal of Honor.
The Navy Cross, which has the same criteria as the DSC, was authorized on Feb. 4, 1919. Like the MOH, the Navy Cross can be awarded to sailors, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen. Legendary Marine Chesty Puller was awarded 5 of them.
The DSC has been awarded about twice as often as the Navy Cross, a number that roughly tracks with the relative size of the Army versus the Marine Corps and Navy personnel in direct combat. The Air Force Cross, with less than 200 recipients, did not exist until 1960. Aviators in World War II and Korea received DSCs.
The Silver Star Medal
Nickolas Arkadis was a 2nd Lt. assigned to the 1st Marine Division in August 1950 at the battle of Naktong. Leading an undermanned platoon, he led an assault on North Korean positions on two tactical high spots, dubbed Hills 143 and 147. Shrapnel from an enemy shell caught Arkadis as he led his Marines, but he pushed forward until he collapsed from heavy blood loss. For leading the charge, he was awarded the Silver Star Medal.
The Silver Star Medal is the third highest honor awarded to service members and shares the same criteria description as the Service Cross and the MOH. Home of Heroes, a military history reference site, estimates that approximately 100,000 to 150,000 have been awarded since its inception, or less than 1 percent of the 30 million who’ve served in uniform since World War II.
President Woodrow Wilson authorized the “Citation Star” during World War I as an Army decoration on July 9, 1918. The Citation Star was a small silver star that could be worn on the ribbon of any Army campaign decoration.
It was later replaced by the Silver Star Medal in 1932, with the citation star placed within a larger bronze star, which represents military service. The laurel wreath encircling the center signifies achievement.
The ribbon’s red, white, and blue colors are based on the American flag. It’s awarded by all branches of the U.S. military and can be accompanied by the Bronze Oak Leaf Clusters, Silver Oak Leaf Clusters, Gold Star in lieu of additional Navy/USMC awards, and Silver Star instead of a sixth Navy/USMC award.
The V Device
The Department of Defense’s ‘top three’ valor awards are the only awards that must be awarded for combat. The rest of the medals a soldier wears on their chest are for ’meritorious service’ in the military. But many can be awarded for combat action. In that case, they come with a “V” device attached.
Here are the awards authorized for the V-Device:
- Distinguished Service Medals
- Bronze Star Medal
- Army Soldier’s Medal, Navy and Marine Corps Medal, Airman’s Medal, and the Coast Guard Medal
- The Army, Navy and Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Air Force, and Joint Service Commendation Medals
There is no specific tally for the number of valor awards given out, but a 2007 article by Government Executive magazine reported that in the first six years of the War on Terror, the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps combined issued 1,765 Bronze Stars with V devices and approximately 5,257 without. For the Army, the figures were 1,698 Bronze Stars with V and more than 50,000 without.
Gary Wetzel, a Medal of Honor recipient, told Romesha something he’d never forget: “War is not glorifying. It’s horrifying.” It’s a saying that has stuck with him for years. Romesha doubled down on valor awards not being a reward or a ‘win.’
“Valorous awards. You can’t truly sit there and say you won everything because you’ve lost so much,” Romesha said. “So, you can’t sit there and say you won anything, you can just say you’ve received acknowledgment for your contribution to do your best.”
The Purple Heart
The Purple Heart holds a unique spot in the military award hierarchy. It is for any military member who is wounded or killed in combat, including incidents of friendly fire.
Notably, Purple Hearts were not traditionally given for injuries that manifest over time, like traumatic brain injuries suffered in large blasts or from repeated concussions, but that approach to awarding the medal is changing. In 2020, 29 Purple Hearts were retroactively awarded to service members who suffered TBIs from a ballistic missile attack in Syria.
The award traces its roots to the American Revolution, when two Continental Army soldiers, William Brown and Elijah Churchill, were the first to receive the Badge of Military Merit, the predecessor of the Purple Heart. Over 1 million Purple Hearts were awarded in World War II.
Every Purple Heart medal pinned on a soldier in the last 80 years was originally intended for a soldier who never had to receive it. As World War II came to a close, U.S. planners began minting purple heart medals in anticipation of an invasion of mainland Japan. So many casualties were expected that the eventually unneeded surplus remains in U.S. stocks today.
The Purple Heart ranks above the service-specific commendation medals, including the Joint Service Commendation Medal, but is one rank lower than the Bronze Star. Close to 2 million Purple Hearts have been awarded since it was authorized in 1932.
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