The Medal of Honor is the nation's highest medal for valor in combat that can be awarded to members of the armed forces. It sometimes is referred to as the "Congressional Medal of Honor" because the President awards it on behalf of the Congress.
The medal was first authorized in 1861 for Sailors and Marines, and the following year for Soldiers as well. Since then, more than 3,400 Medals of Honor have been awarded to members of all DOD services and the Coast Guard, as well as to a few civilians who distinguished themselves with valor.
Medals of Honor are awarded sparingly and are bestowed only to the bravest of the brave; and that valor must be well documented. So few Medals of Honor are awarded, in fact, that the only ones awarded after the Vietnam War were bestowed posthumously to Army Master Sgt. Gary I. Gordon and Army Sgt. 1st Class Randall D. Shughart for valor in Somalia in 1993, and posthumously to the most recent recipient, Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith for valor in Iraq. There were no Medals of Honor awarded during Operation Desert Storm and operations in Grenada, Panama and Lebanon.
However, since 1993, 39 other Medals of Honor have been awarded to correct past administrative errors, oversights, follow-ups on lost recommendations or as a result of new evidence.
Here are just a few examples of Soldiers who were awarded the Medal of Honor from three wars. Their actions, like the other recipients of the medal, were far and above the call of duty.
During the Civil War, the job of color bearer was one of the most hazardous as well as important duties in the Army. Soldiers looked to the flag for direction and inspiration in battle and the bearer was usually out in front, drawing heavy enemy fire while holding the flag high. On Nov. 16, 1863, regimental color bearer Pvt. Joseph E. Brandle, from the 17th Michigan Infantry, participated in a battle near Lenoire, Tenn. "[H]aving been twice wounded and the sight of one eye destroyed, [he] still held to the colors until ordered to the rear by his regimental commander."
Corporal. Alvin C. York, from the 82nd Division, fearlessly engaged the numerically superior German force at Chatel-Chehery, France, on Oct. 8, 1918 - just a month before the armistice was signed. His citation reads: "After his platoon had suffered heavy casualties and three other noncommissioned officers had become casualties, Corporal. York assumed command. Fearlessly leading seven men, he charged with great daring a machine gun nest, which was pouring deadly and incessant fire upon his platoon. In this heroic feat the machine gun nest was taken, together with four officers and 128 men and several guns."
Officers, as well as enlisted, have been awarded the Medal of Honor. Valor cuts across the ranks, as well as the services. On July 11, 1943, 2nd Lt. Robert Craig, from the 3rd Infantry Division, led his company in battle at Favoratta, Sicily. His citation reads: "2nd Lt. Craig voluntarily undertook the perilous task of locating and destroying a hidden enemy machine gun which had halted the advance of his company. Attempts by three other officers to locate the weapon had resulted in failure, with each officer receiving wounds. 2nd Lt. Craig located the gun and snaked his way to a point within 35 yards of the hostile position before being discovered. Charging headlong into the furious automatic fire, he reached the gun, stood over it, and killed the three crewmembers with his carbine. With this obstacle removed, his company continued its advance. Shortly thereafter while advancing down the forward slope of a ridge, 2nd Lt. Craig and his platoon, in a position devoid of cover and concealment, encountered the fire of approximately 100 enemy soldiers. Electing to sacrifice himself so that his platoon might carry on the battle, he ordered his men to withdraw to the cover of the crest while he drew the enemy fire to himself. With no hope of survival, he charged toward the enemy until he was within 25 yards of them. Assuming a kneeling position, he killed five and wounded three enemy soldiers. While the hostile force concentrated fire on him, his platoon reached the cover of the crest. 2nd Lt. Craig was killed by enemy fire, but his intrepid action so inspired his men that they drove the enemy from the area, inflicting heavy casualties on the hostile force."