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Nominations, decisions on Medal of Honor shrouded in secrecy

August 25, 2013 Updated: August 25, 2013 at 10:35 am
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Only a tiny group of people deal with the process that results in the Medal of Honor.

Its work is shrouded in secrecy - even modern conveniences such as faxes and emails are shunned in favor of hand-carried files.

Those involved can't talk about "The Medal" until the president awards it.

"Those particular files are particularly close-hold. They are only worked and touched by a small group of people we consider to be trusted agents," said Lt. Col. Colleen Carr, who oversees the awards branch at the Army's Human Resources Center in Fort Knox, Ky.

The Army began awarding the Medal of Honor in 1862 for battlefield bravery, but in all the wars that have followed with millions of men and women seeing combat, just 3,400 have qualified for the medal.

The process starts with a soldier on the battlefield doing something extraordinary. To earn the award, the soldier must have "distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty," according to federal law.

But if a soldier does all that and nobody sees it - no medal. The process requires documentation, witnesses, sworn statements. That paperwork goes to the Fort Knox team.

"There have been packages with as little as 50 pages of information and as many as 1,000 pages," Carr said.

The same questions are asked again and again to ensure that the recipient of the medal is a bona fide hero.

At any step, a leader can stop the process.

Carr said few of those nominated wind up wearing the blue ribbon and golden star. The office won't release statistics.

Carr couldn't discuss the specifics on the two Medals of Honor earned in 2013 by Fort Carson soldiers Ty Carter and Clinton Romesha.

"The Medal of Honor is the one military award where the only approval authority is the president of the United States," Carr explained. "He and only he is the person who makes the decision."

Carr's office is reviewing paperwork for valor in several wars these days.

In addition to heroism in Iraq and Afghanistan, some nominations date to conduct in World War II.

The Medal of Honor is different from other military awards in many respects. It's the only American military decoration that comes with money. Recipients are entitled to a lifetime pension - currently $1,237 per month - plus an allowance to buy uniforms.

They can also fly on military aircraft, use military facilities and are guaranteed invitations to presidential inauguration events.

And they get something to pass on: Children of Medal of Honor recipients are entitled to attend any federal military academy if they meet admission requirements.

Those aren't giveaways. Soldiers earn it the hard way.

Carr said it can be tough to read Medal of Honor nominations, especially for soldiers who died on the battlefield.

"It's inspiring," she said. "Truly awe-inspiring."

And rare.

In a dozen years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, there have been five living recipients of the Medal of Honor, including former Fort Carson soldier Ty Carter, who will receive his Monday at the White House.

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