Defense & National Security

Hunter fights to give military bravery its due

Hunter fights to give military bravery its due

In the earliest days of the war in Afghanistan, a small Army Special Forces team—Operational Detachment Alpha 574, of the 5th Special Forces Training Group out of Fort Campbell, Ky.—joined forces with a then-unknown insurgency leader, Hamid Karzai, to overthrow the Taliban presence in portions of the Pashtun Tribal Belt in southern Afghanistan.

From that mission emerged some of the first heroes of America’s longest war.

The tiny detachment, together with their Afghan counterparts, successfully stood together against at least 500 Taliban fighters on Nov. 16, 2001 to defend the town of Tirin Kowt, which had declared independence from the regime. Shortly afterward, on Dec. 5, a misdirected air strike killed two men of ODA-574 and left many more American troops and Afghan fighters severely wounded.

Two of those men, Master Sgt. Jefferson Donald Davis and Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Petithory, would receive posthumous Silver Stars, the military’s third highest decoration, for their bravery.

A new document posted erroneously online by a defense contractor sometime last month may indicate that three more were approved for the prestigious award following the event, but never received it.

The online catalogue of 518 award recipients, which also exposed the Social Security numbers of several dozen living and deceased recipients of the nation’s highest combat awards, contained the names of Sgts. 1st Class Ronnie Raikes, Gilbert Magallenes, and Michael McElhiney, all listed as having received a Silver Star they never saw.

Electrifying discovery

For former ODA-574 commander Jason Amerine, now a lieutenant colonel, this discovery 11 years after the action was electrifying. He had submitted them for the awards immediately following the battle and long had been frustrated that they had received lesser awards while approval for the Silver Stars remained unfinalized.

“For me, I’d always regretted that I couldn’t get at least Magallenes, McElhiney, and Raikes Silver Stars. Their valor merited that award,” he said. “I knew that I tried and I did what I could within the limits of professionalism as an officer.”

To one congressman fighting to set the record straight, this incident is further proof of a military awards system that badly needs oversight and accountability. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) challenged the system prominently in March, successfully calling for a reopening of the case of Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta, who was denied a Medal of Honor in favor of the lesser Navy Cross because of conflicting accounts of how he came to cover a grenade and save a comrade’s life in Fallujah, Iraq, 2004.

Hunter also has called for reevaluation of the actions of Army Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, Marine Corps Capt. Brian Chontosh, and Air Force Staff Sgt. Robert Gutierrez, saying all were unjustly passed over for the highest award for bravery in Iraq and Afghanistan, and continues to push for answers in the case of Army Capt. William Swenson, whose Medal of Honor packet for bravery in the 2009 battle of Ganjgal, Afghanistan was reportedly misplaced by officials.

Some allege the system suffers too much from human subjectivity and unclear or arbitrarily high standards that resulted in only 10 Medal of Honor recipients—three living—in the decade of war following Sept. 11, 2001.

An Army officer with knowledge of the process who spoke to Human Events on condition of anonymity, said the system suffered, especially in the early days of the war, from lack of a clear standard for comparison and concern on the part of some officials that awards would suffer from inflation if too many were given out. “The standards are just so vague that everyone errs toward not awarding them,” he said.

“You just want the process to be fair,” Hunter spokesman Joe Kasper told Human Events. “You want the process to represent the soldiers and Marines, sailors and airmen who deserve these awards.”

Hunter wrote to Army Secretary John McHugh this month, asking for an investigation into the latest discovery and security breach. “It is the obligation of the Army to maintain an awards process that is devoid of lapses in communication, transparency, and, most importantly, ensuring America’s military heroes are honored with the combat decorations they deserve,” he wrote.

Doug Sterner, the curator of the private military awards database “Hall of Valor” who first discovered the accidentally leaked document, said the military also needs to examine its own documents and to see if there are other medals that have gone unawarded because of oversight and human factors.

“We need to get the historical record of the wars corrected, look at the men and women of the current generation, if any are being shortchanged,” he said.

Hunter’s office has received a short communication from McHugh acknowledging his letter and saying the Army would investigate the unawarded Silver Stars. Kasper said in the long term Hunter is proposing the establishment of a panel, independent from the military, that would review the highest tier of military award decisions to add greater objectivity to the process. And the congressman is hopeful of near success on one front: the awards case of Peralta is back on Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s desk, and a final decision is expected soon.

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