Commentary

DoD Must Review Shaky Medal Award Process, Address Racial Disparity

The grip bias holds over the awarding of military medals — whether caused by racism or something else — has been publicly known for decades.

Awards reveal an institutions’ values and who matters within it, which is why revamping them is an essential part of achieving equity. Organizations as varied as the Grammys, the James Beard Foundation, and the Asian American Journalists Association have decided it’s time to examine how they bestow honors. The United States Armed Forces needs to join this list — particularly for its highest-level awards for valor.

In addition to its solemnity and prestige, the benefits of receiving the Medal of Honor (MOH) are significant. These include additional pension income, automatic entry to service academies for the recipient’s children, and elimination of co-pays for any medical care. However, for something so important, the awards process is shaky, even dubious.

Deciding what counts as “personal bravery” that was “beyond the call of duty” and “involved risk of life” is inherently subjective and often left to superiors who have never faced combat themselves. It leaves much room for unconscious biases to color, even hijack decision-making.

Cracking open the awards process — making it more objective and transparent — might be one of the best ways to address the racial problems and lack of diversity that plagues the US military.

Racial Bias in Medal of Honor Selection

Only 2 percent of MOH recipients are Black even though 43 percent of the military is Black. The grip bias holds over the awarding of military medals — whether caused by racism or something else — has been publicly known for decades.

After the Department of Defense (DoD) reviewed the process in 1992, President Bill Clinton upgraded seven awards to the MOH to correct, at least in part, for racial bias. Then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel initiated another review in 2014 that led to 1,100 award recipients being considered for valor award upgrades.

The FY 2010 Defense Authorization included instructions to root out “inadvertent subjective bias” in the approval process and clarified that risk of life doesn’t require loss of life to be worthy of the award. However, equity in valor awards remains a work in progress.

Efforts to Address Racial Disparity Insufficient

But even this introspection at the DoD has been insufficient. The New York Times recently reported the story of Captain Paris Davis. Davis was one of the army’s first Black Special Forces officers, whose proposal for the Medal of Honor has been repeatedly denied for decades, so much so that in January of this year, acting secretary Christopher M. Miller ordered a review of the matter.

One of the reasons Captain Davis’ situation is so egregious was that no one could track the awards package. Once it’s drafted and submitted by commanding officers, the DoD has no formal procedure of updating applicants or the public regarding its status. That’s the case for all awards, not just Davis’.

It’s not like the DoD doesn’t know this. The Marine Corps has attempted to reform its valor awards process. They set up a new online system in 2008 and in 2017, at the behest of former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, moved up timelines for decisions. But despite new systems, there’s no evidence that those expedient timelines are being met, and the public still has no insight into what’s happening.

Unexplained Award Downgrades for People of Color

While his proposal wasn’t lost, Vietnam veteran Major James Capers Jr’s package for the Medal of Honor was in 2010 downgraded, without explanation, to a Silver Star by then-Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus. It’s important to note that those nominated for an award have been deemed to have earned that award by officers directly in their chain of command who submit the application. Downgrading an award application is a deliberate action

Capers — who happens to be the first Black Marine featured in a recruiting campaign to attract more Black Marines, first Black Marine special operations officer, and the first to receive a battlefield commission — received his downgraded award against a backdrop of four others being awarded the Medal of Honor that year: all white men. 

And in 2004, the proposed Medal of Honor for Sergeant Rafael Peralta, a Mexican-born Marine who enlisted the same day he became a permanent resident of the United States, was downgraded to a Navy Cross without explanation. Because the process is so opaque and takes so long — sometimes as long as two years — Peralta’s family was forced to rely on a friend and lawyer to uncover the reason for the downgrade.

The answer was far from satisfactory: the awards board couldn’t confirm that Peralta had intentionally sacrificed his life to save his fellow soldiers by pulling a grenade under himself.

Transparent, Impartial Award Process and Standards Necessary

The DoD values accuracy in its awards, so much so that the Stolen Valor Act was passed to prevent what appeared to be a post-9/11 rash of those fraudulently claiming to have received awards for valor. It outright criminalized statements of possessing an award that someone never received.

The flip side of the protection of valor awards is, of course, that they should go to people who earned them after a fair, impartial, and timely review of an application submitted on their behalf.

Former US President Barack Obama presents a Medal of Honor to Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard, who is accepting on behalf of the late Army Pvt. Henry Johnson. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

And regardless of who receives them, there definitely cannot be a racial or ethnic bias to the selection process. Unfortunately, that’s not something we can rule out.

Some think that too many valor medals are awarded. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recounted in his memoir Duty a conversation with the Army’s Vice Chief of Staff, General Pete Chiarelli, about the low number of nominations. Chiarelli responded that awards “had been passed out so freely in Vietnam, succeeding officers were determined to raise the bar.” The general also wondered aloud if they had raised it too high.

Without complete transparency of the process, to say that too many or too few awards are given out is premature.

Besides, awards aren’t limited to the mere honorific. They can also affect promotions, which means that bias that may reside in the awards process is perpetuated in the military’s structure.

DoD Must Undertake Review

The fact that there are no statistics on award applications and the nominees’ backgrounds and no way to track them as they take years of review may provide cover for some decisions that have prevented the best and most qualified service members from rising in the ranks. 

While the criteria for these awards are strict to ensure they are reserved only for the most outstanding acts of heroism, the slow and muddled process isn’t helping anyone, especially minority service members. The DoD should undertake a review immediately.


Headshot Kelsey BakerKelsey Baker spent six years in the Marine Corps and was deployed to Kuwait and Iraq.


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