JOSEPH KINNEY: Unrecognized Valor
This is directed at U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole.
Senator Dole, please hear me out. You serve North Carolina well. It is with great respect that I ask to speak candidly with you about a situation that is flying below the radar for most of us. But that doesn't mean that it isn't important, because it is.
I call upon you now, as a member of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, to ring a bell for honor for the young men and women who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. These young men and women are being forgotten, and I can no longer stand idly by and see this occur.
Unfortunately, I don't have a "K" street lobbyist or the power of huge campaign contributions to buttress my cause. I have only the power of history and justice, and I can only point to the honor and glory bestowed to America's war fighters of generations past.
It doesn't seem terribly long ago that military service was important. I was in the fifth grade in Kansas when I first heard of a great man who would become your husband. That year, Bob Dole was elected to the U.S. Congress and another leader, John F. Kennedy, won the presidency.
While these men had different political ideas, they were similar in one important respect: They were war heroes, men who heard the clarion call of service and who had overcome adversity to bring our nation honor in combat. I wanted to be just like them, a hero for my country. I want that for any of my four sons and daughter who would also serve.
In 1960, nearly three-quarters of those in the Congress were military veterans. Today, only about one in five in the Congress has served on active duty. We've replaced patriots with lawyers. Kathy Roth-Douquet and Frank Schaeffer, in their book "AWOL," have chronicled the impact of how this absence of service hurts our nation, but that is still another story.
Because of these gaps in experience, it becomes more important that leaders like you strive ever harder to pay attention to the matters that make our military the force that it is. I will assure you that hidden deep in the heart of every fighter is the will to bring honor to his family, community, and nation. That honor comes from answering the call to duty and responding to the unique and sometimes desperate threats that challenge life and limb.
When I was 18, I joined the Marine Corps. In truth, I would have joined when I was 14 if the decision had been left to me. I had heard Kennedy's clarion call, and I had seen Congressman Dole fighting the good fight for the people of Kansas. I had seen him with his crippled right hand stand up for what mattered.
When I finally reported to San Diego for boot comp, I relished the stories of men like Audie Murphy and Chesty Puller and even Bob Dole. I have never been thirsty for blood, but just for the opportunity to serve.
This leads me to the point: Where are the Murphys and Pullers today? Are we a nation without heroes? Could it be true that we lack men and women who are deserving of the nation's highest honors?
I don't believe that this is true. Rather, I think that we have forgotten how to recognize our heroes and acknowledge them for what they have done. Perhaps this is because so many senior officers have only theoretical rather than practical experience on the battlefield. I really don't know, and that doesn't matter -- only correcting the situation matters in my mind.
Senator, we have many heroes, men and women who have risked life and limb so that others may live. In fact, I am convinced that this is the best generation of war fighters we have had in contemporary America. It is true that we do not know about some of these stories that are cloaked in the mysteries of special operations. But there are other men whose stories are there waiting to be discovered -- and, more important, to be acknowledged by a grateful nation.
A Deserving Soldier
Take, for example, Brian Chontosh who now is a captain stationed at the Quantico Marine Base in Virginia.
Without question, we should be naming a military base after Brian Chontosh. He is a hero in the finest tradition of our military. If Audie Murphy were still alive, he would want to know Brian Chontosh. This New York native is the kind of warrior that, in years past, would be getting a ticker-tape parade down Fifth Avenue, where he would drown in confetti. But very few know his name.
Identifying and honoring military heroes just has not taken on a high priority. This is a travesty that, if left unaddressed, will be felt for generations to come.
While we may not honor military heroes the way we used to, such acts of acknowledgment are the lifeblood of our warriors. They are the grist of legend, the fuel for those who come behind and face death in the name of this country. When one hears the ferocious fire of enemy weapons, it is the clarion call of those who have served before that steels nerves for the battle that ensues. Warriors meet the terror of combat by knowing that others, with the help of God, have succeeded before.
Yet, somehow Chontosh and others like him have yet to receive the full measure of praise that is due them. While we superficially pay homage to this generation of warriors with our yellow magnetic ribbons, we have yet to honor them fully as we have in the past.
If one were to compare those fighting the war on terror with those from the Vietnam conflict, the current group of men and women would be seen as not passing muster. They would be seen as inferior, when nothing could be further from the truth.
For reasons I can't quite fathom and certainly don't accept, the top brass in the Pentagon, beginning with Central Command in Tampa and following with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, apparently doesn't feel that today's men and women are meritorious. They have had 3 1/2 years to do something that took 3 1/2 days in World War II.
This is wrong, and we should do something to make sure that our heroes are made just that, heroes. That is where you come in, Senator Dole, along with your committee.
Heroism Second to None
It is, after all, the Medal of Honor that we are discussing. This is a medal that has been authorized by Congress for generations. Hence, the rendering of the medal is an issue that should be subjected to congressional oversight.
Let me be clear: I believe that the war in Afghanistan and Iraq has fostered heroism that is second to none in the history of this nation. I have personally been told of the incredible exploits that our guys have attained in the face of overwhelming odds.
It is tragic that President Bush has yet to award a Medal of Honor to a living veteran of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. (One was given posthumously.) Surely this isn't a matter of having enough time. After all, Audie Murphy received his Medal of Honor three days after his exploits during World War II.
Perhaps we are not honoring the current generation because this is an unpopular war. Could that be? Are we worried that by honoring a few brave souls, we would be legitimizing a war some don't like? Could it be that some don't like knowing that war is a nasty activity where men and women die in the service of their country?
I have bled from wounds in my chest, right hand, and both legs. I can tell you that war is hell and never glorious. But I would not trade my Purple Heart for a million dollars.
This is more than an issue of tribute for those who have been overlooked. Tales of courage encourage future generations of soldiers, marines and sailors. When I was a kid in Kansas, stories of bravery helped motivate my service in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam conflict.
During the Vietnam War, 245 Medals of Honor were awarded. If we awarded MOH at roughly the same rate for the war on terror, we would expect at least 30 or more bestowed by now.
This leads me back to Chontosh. When I first read about this man, I was overwhelmed by his valor. Tears flooded my face. Here was a Marine's Marine with courage second to none. His story is uncomplicated, as tales of bravery often are. He was a young lieutenant whose platoon was suddenly trapped in a blistering ambush near Baghdad. Machine gun, rifle and mortar fire came at them from every direction.
Rather than buckle in fear, Chontosh showed steely resolve. He maneuvered his humvee at a perpendicular angle directly into an enemy machine gun position, firing as he went. Once the machine gun nest was destroyed, Chontosh abandoned the now-disabled humvee and attacked straight through a trenchline, killing, wounding or scattering enemy fighters as he went. When his personal weapon misfired, he picked up two enemy AK-47 rifles when he ran out of ammo and continued on his way.
When the smoke cleared, Chontosh had personally killed more than 20 enemy soldiers, saving dozens of his platoon members from certain death.
For this incredible courage, Chontosh was awarded the Navy Cross. Whatever he feels, it is the privates, corporals and sergeants of our armed forces that are the losers in this oversight. While I am proud of the honor that Chontosh has brought himself and the Marine Corps, I am angered by his silver medal when gold was justified. Young grunts desperately want someone to be proud of, but those who hold the power to award the nation's highest medal said no.
I told Chontosh that I was going to write about him. He told me that he didn't deserve the Medal of Honor. I told him he was right, that he deserved at least three but they only issued one at a time. He laughed but did not know how serious I was!
Miscarriage of Justice
The more I think about this -situation, the madder I get. I have four sons, and two of them are good bets to be Marines or Special Forces. I don't want them to look to my generation or World War II for heroes, but to men who are their contemporaries, bold warriors who will blaze the trail for my sons and others of their generation facing terrorists and others in remote corners of this planet.
Oh, please don't misunderstand. I pray that my sons never go to war. But if they do, I would want them to fight with honor and courage. I would want them to know about others who have come before them and met the challenge that faces them.
During my research for this essay, I called the Department of Defense to see what had gone astray. A public affairs officer was troubled by this omission. He wondered if our fighting style today is less risky than it was in Vietnam. How lame. There has been incredible fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many of our troops have performed with incredible valor. Recall Fallujah?
Surely, Secretary Rumsfeld and others should be questioned about this glaring oversight. I would bet my house that the secretary has received numerous "jackets" advocating the MOH for our warriors. For whatever reason, Rumsfeld and others has said "no" or "not now."
The president is no stranger to justice for veterans. I believe that if he knew of this he would share my outrage. He awarded Ed (Too Tall to Fly) Freeman a MOH in 2001.
Freeman was a legendary helicopter pilot in the fierce battle of La Drang, which was captured in Mel Gibson's film, "We Were Soldiers Once." Gibson apparently used his clout to get this one to the Oval Office.
Senator Dole, I care less about why this oversight has occurred than the fact that it has. I trust that your committee will conduct an investigation of this matter and use that the heroic acts of Chontosh and others taken in the name of our freedom be acknowledged. Not a minute should be lost to bring the honor that is due.
Joseph Kinney lives in Pinehurst, where he is writing a book on the making of warriors. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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