“That one in five of the nation’s highest medals has been issued in secret is likely due to the reliance on special operations forces undertaking stealthy missions.
The secrecy surrounding more than 200 Service Cross and Silver Star awards reflects the reliance on special operations forces involved in classified missions to capture or kill terrorists and free hostages.
Last month, the Pentagon announced that officials are reviewing 1,090 awards of Service Crosses and Silver Stars awarded since Sept. 11, 2001 to determine if any should be upgraded to the nation’s highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor.
Since 9/11, the 216 medals were awarded in secret for missions that cannot be publicly discussed, according to the records. One Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest medal awarded to soldiers, and three Navy Crosses, the equivalent medal for sailors and Marines, have been issued for courageous acts during classified operations. The Navy awarded 112 Silver Stars, and the Army 100 more for undisclosed actions. The Air Force has not issued a Service Cross or Silver Star in secret since 9/11.
The data, current as of last week, could change slightly as medals continue to be reviewed.
That one in five of the nation’s highest medals has been issued in secret is likely due to the reliance on special operations forces undertaking stealthy missions, said the official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the issue. Along with drone strikes, what are called “direct-action raids” conducted by commandos in secret have become a hallmark of the war on terror, the official said.
On Monday, President Obama talked about one of those secret missions when he awarded a Navy SEAL the Medal of Honor. Senior Chief Petty Officer Edward Byers earned the medal for his role in springing an American doctor held hostage by the Taliban in 2012. Byers’ surpassing heroism is the reason details of the mission were made public. Medals of Honor are not awarded in secret.
Obama underlined the reason for secrecy in his remarks at the ceremony.
“Given the nature of Ed’s service, there is a lot that we cannot say today,” Obama said. “Many of the operational details of his mission remain classified. Many of his teammates cannot be mentioned. And this is as it should be. Their success demands secrecy, and that secrecy saves lives.”
The rescue of Dilip Joseph also cost the life of Byers’ SEAL teammate, Nicolas Checque. He was killed by a Taliban guard as he burst through the door of their stronghold. Cheque was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions in the mission. Cheque is among 70 Navy special operators, 55 of them SEALs, to be killed in action since the 9/11 attacks, Obama said.
The ongoing review of medals for upgrade could increase the number of Medal of Honor ceremonies, said Dwight Mears, a former West Point history professor who researched the awards process. Some Service Crosses awarded during the Vietnam War were classified because they were from previously secret operations in countries such as Laos.
Political and practical reasons can limit the number of Medals of Honor awarded for wars like Vietnam and the current conflict, Mears said in an email.
“There may be both overhead pressure to downgrade in order to keep the operations out of the public eye for strategic reasons, and also pressure from the lower echelons responsible for originating the award recommendations,” Mears said. “Recommending a (Medal of Honor) effectively removes a special operator from any future tactical operations by revealing his identity and making him into a celebrity, and it also brings increased public scrutiny into the unit itself.”
The nature of the secret missions — often quick, violent raids — has led to some of the most intense hand-to-hand fighting in American military history, said Michael O’Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution. A senior special operations general told O’Hanlon that some of his soldiers had been engaged in more close combat with the enemy than any soldiers in U.S. history.
“I had to think about that awhile before realizing he was probably right,” O’Hanlon said.”