06/15/2011 10:53 am ET Updated Aug 15, 2011

Two Medals of Honor -- Both Deserved, One Denied

I have bemoaned the fact that so very few Medals of Honor were being awarded to our deserving heroes, both during the peak of our fighting in Iraq and during the entire first seven years of the Afghanistan War.

While nearly 250 of our troops received the Medal of Honor for heroism during the Vietnam War, only four heroes were so recognized for actions in Iraq during the Bush administration and a single Medal of Honor was awarded for heroism in the Afghanistan War.

When Army Ranger Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Arthur Petry receives the Medal of Honor in a ceremony at the White House on July 12, he'll be the fourth soldier to receive that recognition for heroism in the Afghanistan War from President Obama.

Much criticism has been leveled at the White House and Defense Department for such dearth of recognition for our war heroes and some have even suggested that politics and other factors play a role.

In a December 2010 Los Angeles Times Op-Ed, David Freed laments such lack of recognition and questions the subjectivity, arbitrariness and even the biases and politics that sometimes are part of the recommendation and award process.

In a ground-breaking article in the Air Force Times a little more than two years ago and after a combined total of 13 years of fighting in two wars, the author, Brendan McGarry, noted that "The number of Medal of Honor recipients from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan can be counted on one hand," and felt compelled to say, "Now, 146 years after the first Medals of Honor were awarded -- to living soldiers -- it remains to be seen whether anyone will ever again earn a Medal of Honor and survive to accept it."

Fortunately, Sgt. Petry will be the second living recipient of the Medal of Honor, following the award of the Medal to Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta last fall.

As for possible reasons for such a dearth of recognition, in particular with respect to living recipients of the Medal, McGarry in his Times article offers several, including " the proliferation of other valor awards; the changing nature of warfare; and a review process that has become so rigorous -- and, some say, meddlesome -- that no living person can be good enough to pass all the tests," and he rightfully rekindles the debate on " whether the military is properly recognizing today's heroes."

Others also blame the indirect nature of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the "variants of asymmetric warfare," the fact that "It's pretty hard to be a hero against an IED."

Some accuse military officials of being "stingy" in recommending deserving servicemembers and of "adopting unofficial and overly restrictive criteria for recognizing war heroes'".

But setting that debate aside for a moment, there is absolutely no doubt that we have in Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry a hero deserving of our nation's highest honor for exemplifying "gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of one's own life above and beyond the call of duty" during a fire battle in Paktya, Afghanistan, on May 26, 2008, as part of a rare daylight raid to capture a high-value target.

On that day, an already wounded Petry -- a bullet had just gone through both his legs and a grenade had already exploded among his buddies -- saw a second grenade land just a few feet from two wounded fellow Rangers, grabbed the grenade and threw it in the direction of the enemy, preventing the serious injury or death of his comrades. But, as he released the grenade, it detonated and catastrophically amputated his right hand.

According to the Army: "Petry -- despite his own wounds and with complete disregard for his personal safety -- consciously and deliberately risked his life to move to and secure the live enemy grenade and consciously throw the grenade away from his fellow Rangers..."

Petry is a true hero, fully deserving of our nation's highest honor for bravery in combat.

But, here is part of the citation accompanying the award of the Navy Cross to another hero, Marine Corps Sgt. Rafael Peralta. It refers to Peralta's actions after an enemy hand grenade landed near the head of an already mortally wounded Peralta during a battle in Fallujah, Iraq, in November 2004.

Without hesitation and with complete disregard for his own personal safety, Sergeant Peralta reached out and pulled the grenade to his body, absorbing the brunt of the blast and shielding fellow Marines only feet away. Sergeant Peralta succumbed to his wounds. By his undaunted courage, intrepid fighting spirit, and unwavering devotion to duty, Sergeant Peralta reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.

Peralta was recommended for the Medal of Honor by the Commandant of the Marine Corps -- a recommendation that was endorsed by the Secretary of the Navy.

Instead he received the Navy Cross.

There has been a huge outcry at this injustice, by fellow Marines, the media, elected officials, the American people and by Sgt. Peralta's family, who refused to accept the Navy Cross. Numerous articles have been written on this, including by this author, here, here and here.

In the aforementioned Air Force Times article, McGarry, also discusses Peralta's case and says:

After Sgt. Rafael Peralta was denied the Medal of Honor in 2008 -- a case that drew heavy scrutiny, including use of forensic evidence -- questions were raised about whether Peralta's onetime status as an illegal immigrant played a part in the decision.

You see, Rafael Peralta apparently came to the U.S. from Mexico at a very young age, as an undocumented immigrant. As soon as he had his "green card," he joined the U.S. Marine Corps, earned his U.S. citizenship and was soon deployed to Iraq where at the young age of 25 he found himself as a scout leader with Company A, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment participating in the bloody U.S. military effort to retake Fallujah.

It is there where Peralta, already shot in the head, "Without hesitation and with complete disregard for his own personal safety" sacrificed his life to save those of his fellow Marines and it is there where Peralta without a question earned our nation's highest honor for valor in combat.

On July 12, let us honor Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Arthur Petry and let us rejoice that we have a second living Medal of Honor recipient from the Afghanistan War, but let us not forget another hero from that "other war" who also deserves our nation's highest honor, albeit posthumously.