Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A medal for combat trauma, brain injury?


Awarding decorations and medals for distinctive combat heroism and gallantry has always been criticized as unfair favoritism. One of the most undeserved medals was the Silver Star, the third-highest medal for heroism, awarded to president-to-be Lyndon Johnson in World War II for little more than literally riding for 13 minutes in a B-26 Marauder bomber in the Pacific.

In recent years, the U.S. military has been busy awarding medals to World War II, Korean and Vietnam veterans whose bravery was either overlooked or adjudged insufficient at the time.

Worse, racism has played a role. No black soldiers in World War II were awarded the nation's highest decoration, the Medal of Honor, until the Pentagon busily unearthed the extraordinary heroism of seven blacks and bestowed the Medal of Honor posthumously on six, and one to an Idahoan, Vernon Baker, 52 years after he wiped out four German machine gun nests on an Italian hilltop. Baker died this year at 90.

Another controversy is brewing over whether and how to decorate vets of Iraq and Afghanistan who suffer post-traumatic stress or brain injuries from powerful jerry-rigged explosive devices.

The Pentagon has decided not to award the Purple Heart to such cases. To qualify for a Purple Heart, blood must be spilled or the soldier must die from a wound.

However, even those criteria embody a degree of unfairness. A GI wounded by a sliver of shrapnel is just as entitled as one whose leg is blown off by enemy fire.

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A 2008 study concluded that 300,000 service members then were suffering from PTSD. That number surely has risen sharply since.

PTSD and permanent brain and head injuries are likely to be the dominant wound of Iraq and Afghanistan combat. Many who suffer have already been awarded medals for gallantry, or even Purple Hearts if the head injury resulted in blood.

But a separate medal surely is deserving for the bloodless wound. Whereas most Purple Heart recipients recover from their wounds, PTSD and brain injury victims likely will spend their lives being treated for persistent mental problems that are as evident of combat as, say, an artificial limb.

If today's Pentagon brass delay and delay what is right and just—a special decoration for the mentally and emotionally wounded—the next generation of generals and admirals will find themselves scurrying to create and award such a medal belatedly to tens of thousands of living and dead GIs who deserved it.

Pray it will not be 52 years like Vernon Baker waited for his honors.

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