August 21, 2009, 3:45 pm

Back in May, I wrote a post on Medals of Honor, and how the standards for awarding them seem to have changed. It was a quick look that focused particularly on how the de facto requirements for being given a Medal of Honor now, more and more, seem to include dying. In both Korea and Vietnam, more than 60% of Medals of Honor were posthumous, a dramatic shift from previously. As I said then:

The valor that garners a Medal of Honor has changed since the Civil War, when the award was first created. In fact, many of the ways that the Medal was previously given no longer hold. Perhaps the most obvious of these is that it is now extremely difficult–if not impossible–to get a Medal of Honor while surviving the acts of bravery.

We now have an interesting further case. 081903mc_weinmaster_800.JPGPrivate First Class Richard Weinmaster, of the Marine Corps, was part of a patrol in Afghanistan in July 2008, and, as the award citation reads:

Private First Class Weinmaster’s squad was conducting a dismounted patrol down a narrow side street in the Sangin District of Helmand Province, Afghanistan, when enemy forces ambushed the squad with machine gun fire and hand grenades. Upon contact, Private First Class Weinmaster immediately began engaging the enemy positions with his squad automatic weapon. As he delivered suppressive fire and assaulted the enemy, encountering a withering volume of fire that passed within meters of his position, Private First Class Weinmaster saw two hand grenades tossed over a wall land in the middle of his patrol. Noting where one of the grenades landed, he quickly placed himself between the grenade and his fire team leader, using his body to shield both his team leader and several other Marines from the blast, which occurred immediately. Private First Class Weinmaster was seriously injured when the grenade detonated, but his valorous actions prevented his fire team leader from receiving any shrapnel. Although he was critically wounded, Private First Class Weinmaster continued to carry on the attack, engaging enemy forces with accurate automatic weapons fire and forcing them to break contact…

Now that reads to me like a Medal of Honor citation. Weinmaster didn’t quite jump directly onto a grenade, but he did put himself between the grenade and his fellow marines, shielding them from the explosion and absorbing the blast. More, after surviving that, he got back up, grievously wounded (including having a bit of shrapnel lodged in his brain, where it remains to this day), and continued to fire on the ambushers until literally collapsing from his wounds. Rating acts of valor is a bit of a mug’s game, but having read a fair number of Medal of Honor citations, that account would not, it seems to me, be out of place. The citation, however, is not for a Medal of Honor: Weinmaster was awarded the Navy Cross, the second highest award for sailors and marines. The most substantial difference that I can see from his situation and other recent Medals of Honor is that Weinmaster survived the action.

Does that prove that Medals of Honor are now only given posthumously? No, not particularly: my estimation of Weinmaster’s action is just that, an estimation. I’m not privy to the deliberations that went on surrounding his award. This is entirely evaluative, and evaluative at a level where I am trying to distinguish between two high awards for valor with all the delicacy that that implies. Nor is this a criticism of the Navy or of changing standards. Standards for awarding medals should, I think, change over time as circumstances and understandings change. We are now, rightly, contemplating whether Purple Hearts should be given to those with PTSD, albeit not without a lot of shouting. But Weinmaster’s case is, I think, worthy of consideration and contemplation. It suggests, at least, an example of extreme valor that the military has decided is not worthy of the Medal of Honor (it should be noted that, as has happened in the past, it is possible that Weinmaster’s medal could be upgraded to a Medal of Honor). To make a final, historical point, Weinmaster would have been awarded a Medal of Honor had this happened back in the Philippine-American War, or during the Boxer Rebellion, or even World War I. Having read all the MoH citations for the first two, I can say safely that the PFC’s actions not only equaled those of most of the MoH awardees, but surpassed them.

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