By Mike Mount
The U.S. military's combat awards process is in disarray and because of that the official Department of Defense statistics do not accurately reflect those who have been awarded combat medals for bravery in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to some members of Congress.
One of those congressmen, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-California, is calling for the Army and other services that supply information for the Pentagon's statistics to correct the dozens of disparities, because it is a "disservice" to those who have fought bravely in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan and in our past wars and conflicts.
"There have been repetitive and serious breakdowns at multiple levels of the awards process. Problems are visible across all services, but, overall, there appears to be a lack of transparency and even accountability," according to Hunter.
One of the problems, say those independently keeping an eye on the awards process, is the disparity in numbers of missing names in the Army's accounting of Silver Star recipients.
More than 60 Army Silver Star awards are missing from the Pentagon's official website, according to Hunter and Doug Sterner, a historian who has researched the medal records of U.S. troops for years and put together what many believe is the most accurate list of what troops received what top awards for valor.
Sterner researched the records for years on his own and published a website with his findings. He was then hired by the Military Times newspapers to curate his list for that company.
Sterner says that there are also at least two missing names on the Pentagon's website, which lists the official statistics, involving one Army Distinguished Service Cross and one Navy Cross, the second highest award for bravery in combat.
"We need to properly remember those who died heroically," Sterner said.
The Department of Defense's valor.defense.gov website database was established earlier this year to allow the public to see whether a person officially received a specific award for valor in combat, in an effort to debunk individuals who falsely claim they have received an award.
The website lists the names of those who have received the Medal of Honor, the highest award for valor in combat; the Distinguished Service Cross, Navy and Air Force crosses, which are the second highest award for combat valor, and the Silver Star, the third highest award for valor in combat.
The website lists only those awarded combat medals from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The Army thoroughly and regularly reviews the top three (Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, and Silver Star) valor awards prior to posting to ensure that all Soldiers listed on the DoD Valor Award Website have been verified as award recipients," Army spokesman Maj. Justin Platt said in a written statement.
"The Army's valor awards process is a time-tested operation which ensures our Soldiers are properly recognized for their heroics. Leaders at all levels are empowered to recommend deserving Soldiers for valorous awards and dedicated to see their sacrifices honored," Platt added,
The Pentagon has said that the list of names on the DoD website is provided by the individual services that maintain their individual awards records. Pentagon officials have also said the list of names will never be complete for a couple of reasons.
"Some awards won't be posted for security reasons, and military members may request their names be removed, the list will be incomplete," says Eileen Lainez, a spokeswoman for the Department of Defense.
But Sterner and Rep. Hunter say that is just an excuse for shoddy paperwork work and a "lack of attention" to the achievements of these soldiers by the services.
Sterner says he finds it hard to believe there are more than 60 Silver Star awards that are part of secret missions in the war on terrorism.
"Some of the award recipients' names are already in the public domain. There are military buildings and a post office named for some of them," Sterner said. Sterner said that two of them in his records are buried at Arlington National Cemetery with notations on their headstones that they received the Silver Star but are not on the official DoD website.
Hunter has also been pushing for lessening the bureaucratic amounts of paperwork that are required to recommend troops for the nation's highest award for combat valor, the Medal of Honor.
Because of the lengthy paperwork, and numerous other requirements, Hunter says that these Medal of Honor files get "lost" in the consideration process because some leaders may not think the person meets the stringent requirements and the paperwork just sits on somebody's desk.
At least two troops have been denied the chance for receiving the Medal of Honor from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the cases, that of Marine Corps Sgt. Rafael Perlata, is now under review by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and an announcement could be made within weeks, according to Pentagon officials.
Hunter believes that there are many other cases where commanders put troops in for lesser awards because they knew the process would be easier to ensure the troops were recognized rather than endure the process for the Medal of Honor, where the paperwork would most likely never be properly processed.
"The criteria for the Medal of Honor are longstanding and have not changed for the current conflicts. Each recommendation is carefully considered based on the merits of the individual's actions, eyewitness accounts, and other supporting evidence. The standard for the Medal of Honor is high, as one would expect for our Nation's most prestigious military decoration," Army spokesman Platt told Security Clearance.
Hunter is a former Marine who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He has been pushing for more transparency in the military awards process for much of his time in Congress, questioning the military's - and specifically the Army's - procedures on how it operates its awards system because of what he sees as an unorganized and outdated process that could be easily maintained digitally.
Hunter also pressed the Army this fall after a private Army contractor accidentally posted a list of 500 names of soldiers who received combat awards and their Social Security numbers. Among the names released were Silver Star recipients from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sterner discovered the list and saw that the Pentagon's list of Silver Star names was shorter than the Army's list.
Hunter demanded Army Secretary John McHugh look into the award status of nine soldiers and clarify their status in early October. He also chastised the secretary for continued problems in the Army's award process.
McHugh sent a response letter to Hunter on November 5, updating him on the findings of the Army review.
"This review verified that four of the Soldiers were not actually awarded the Silver Star, and five Soldiers were awarded the Silver Star, but are not listed due to the sensitive nature of the operation in which they participated," McHugh's letter said.
Hunter was not satisfied with the answers and sent a letter back to McHugh last week saying there were many questions about the award status that had gone unanswered because of "ambiguity" in McHugh's letter.
McHugh's office did not answer questions from Security Clearance, saying only that staffers did not comment on personal correspondence between the secretary and members of Congress.
Pentagon spokeswoman Lainez said it was an Army issue to discuss because the Army maintains its own records.
But Sterner doubts the Pentagon is being forthright and says not all of these names in question are being held for security reasons. He believes it's just another excuse for sloppy record-keeping on the part of the military services.
McHugh's letter also updated Hunter on the Army's review into the public posting of more than 500 soldiers who have received medals for combat valor since 2001. More than 30 of the soldiers had their Social Security numbers inadvertently posted.
McHugh detailed the process the Army was doing to ensure those soldiers and their families were receiving credit protection. He also said there was a full review that looked at the award processing procedures for honors such as the Bronze and Silver stars and higher awards.
"The results of this investigation will include recommendations of measures the Army can implement to prevent similar incidents in the future...personnel who routinely handle (sensitive award information) are being retrained on handling procedures to ensure the information is appropriately safeguarded," McHugh told Hunter.