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Medal of Honor takes moment to earn, years to receive

By Larry Shaughnessy, CNN Pentagon Producer
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Medal of Honor standard too severe?
  • Staff Sgt. Sal Giunta is the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor since Vietnam
  • It took more than three years after his actions for the award to be given
  • Some say process for awarding the medal is too long and the bar has been raised too high
  • Defense chief defends process, says "the requirement is that the evidence be incontestable"

More on the Medal of Honor

Washington (CNN) -- In most cases when a soldier does something extraordinarily brave in battle, it happens in a matter of moments. But to reward that bravery often takes years.

Spc. Sal Giunta went above and beyond the call of duty on October 25, 2007, when he helped thwart an ambush and stopped two Taliban fighters from capturing a fellow solider. But it will be November 16, 2010, when now Staff Sgt. Giunta received the Medal of Honor from President Obama, a wait of more than three years.

By contrast, it took just five months for Obama to find, nominate and eventually see Elena Kagan sworn in as a Supreme Court justice.

Even people very supportive of the awarding of the Medal of Honor say the process is too long, and some even say that the Department of Defense has raised the bar too high for the nation's highest award for valor.

Medal of Honor awarded Tuesday

The idea of presenting an award like the Medal of Honor does not usually come from military brass, according to Col. David Sutherland, who served in Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom. "Most of the time, the service members bring it to us and say we need to make sure this individual is written up for the proper award and given the proper recognition."

More about Giunta's story and the Medal of Honor history

In Giunta's case, the process began within hours of his heroics on a rugged mountain ridge in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley. One of the men he helped save, Spc. Frank Ekrode, who was at Bagram Airfield being treated for multiple injuries, gave a sworn statement about Giunta's actions.

"The same night I got medevaced to Bagram Airfield, like 3 o'clock in the morning or whenever it was, I wrote my first sworn statement," Ekrode told CNN recently.

At just about the same time, Capt. Daniel Kearney, the commander of Giunta's unit, started the paperwork to formally recommend Giunta for the Medal of Honor.

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"I realized I was walking amongst heroes. I was walking amongst giants," Kearney said. "I needed to make sure this country recognized those individuals and paid them the right 'thank you.' "

Kearney, who could hear the firefight from the unit's base camp, sent the Medal of Honor recommendation to Lt. Col. William Ostlund, the commander of Giunta's battalion.

From there, it was sent to Col. Charles Preysler, brigade commander. The recommendation became an ever-growing file of information: sworn statements, maps, drawings. The file eventually got to be about 3 inches thick.

Eventually, the recommendation made its way up each stage of the Army's chain of command to the secretary of the Army.

That was a crucial step. So far, no one had challenged Kearney's recommendation. But when the secretary of the Army read the file, he could have decided that Giunta deserved a Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest medal for valor. That would have stopped the process, and Giunta would have gotten the other award almost immediately.

That last part of the process took more than two years. Rep. Duncan Hunter Jr., R-California, who was a Marine officer in Iraq and Afghanistan, has a problem with that.

"This just shows how bureaucratic and how slow the Department of Defense has become," he said.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates agrees that the process can take a long time, but he defends it.

"This process that we have, that is so complex and so thorough, and the standards are so high that it takes a while, first of all. Generally, it's a two- or three-year process because the requirement is that the evidence be incontestable, that there be no doubt," Gates told CNN's Barbara Starr in an exclusive interview.

Hunter also worries that the Defense Department has set the bar too high for earning the Medal of Honor. "I think frankly that the DOD's standard for the Medal of Honor and for other awards has actually changed so that you have to do more than ever before. Some say, frankly, that you have to die anymore to get the Medal of Honor," he said.

The numbers would seem to back up Hunter's worries. There were 247 Medals of Honor awarded for action in Vietnam. Since that war, there have been nine medals awarded. Giunta's is No. 10, and that number includes not just the war in Afghanistan, the longest war in U.S. history, but also Operation Iraqi Freedom and the mission in Somalia. There were no Medals of Honor awarded for Operation Desert Storm, nor were there any for the missions in the Balkans, Panama, Grenada or Beirut.

Gates and other top defense leaders said it's not that the Defense Department has changed the criteria for a Medal of Honor; it's that the way wars are fought now is different.

"I think part of the reason is the nature of war today, in the sense that, particularly in Afghanistan, our enemies generally use weapons at a distance from us. The improvised explosive devices have caused about 60 percent of our casualties," Gates said. "So as a proportion, there's less hand-to-hand or in-close combat than there has been in previous wars."

But "in-close combat" is just what Giunta faced. When the Taliban fighters ambushed his unit, they were only about 20 feet away.

And when Army Secretary John McHugh read Giunta's file last January, he agreed that Giunta deserved the highest medal for valor. So the process continued. The file went to Gates and to Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Mullen can make recommendations, but it's Gates who decides if Giunta's medal recommendation should go one step further, to the president's desk.

"When you start to read the details, and really -- whether it's for this living recipient or the ones that are being presented posthumously -- you just sit there and wonder how could anybody possibly do this," Gates said.

Gates did forward the file to the White House, and on September 9, 2010, Obama called Giunta and told the young soldier from Iowa, who risked his life for his good friend and fellow soldiers, that he would be receiving the Medal of Honor.