As the nation enjoys a holiday weekend celebrating the Fourth of July, word has come down from the Pentagon that for the first time since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan a living serviceman could receive the Medal of Honor -- the nation's highest military decoration for valor.
It would be the first time the Medal of Honor has gone to a living serviceman since the Vietnam War.
U.S. officials have told ABC News that the Pentagon has sent a recommendation to the White House that a specific soldier be awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic action during a 2007 firefight with the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan.
Since the U.S. military began fighting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Medal of Honor has been awarded, posthumously, six times. If the White House approves the Pentagon's recommendation, it would be the third Medal of Honor awarded for heroism in Afghanistan.
The officials said the soldier repelled a Taliban attack by running through a hail of flames that saved the lives of six of his squadmates during a firefight in the Korengal Valley. Until recently, U.S. forces based in this remote area of Afghanistan's Kunar Province faced almost constant attack from Taliban insurgents, earning it the nickname "Valley of Death."
Earlier this year, the military closed the remote outposts located in the lightly populated valley in an effort to consolidate military resources as part of the counterinsurgency strategy to protect larger population centers.
Officials hesitate to disclose any further details about the soldier's identity, or the incident itself, while the White House considers the Pentagon's recommendation.
Ultimately, it is President Obama who will decide whether this heroic act merits the Medal of Honor. The White House may choose to honor the soldier with another military decoration.
Awarding Medal of Honor a Lengthy Process
The military services sometimes take years to gather and verify voluminous amounts of supporting evidence before bestowing the Medal of Honor.
The small number awarded for combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, has led some in Congress to question whether the military is holding U.S. troops to a higher standard than in past conflicts.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Thursday that "the standard for the Medal of Honor is very high," as one would expect for the nation's most prestigious medal for valor. He said the criteria for awarding the medal "have not changed for the current conflicts. The criteria are what they have been for decades."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last year that it was "a real concern" to him that no living recipients had received the award for valor in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In a September 2009 news briefing, Gates said it was one of President Bush's "real regrets" that he did not have the opportunity to honor a living servicemen with the Medal of Honor.
Retired Maj. Gen. Pat Brady, who received the Medal of Honor for his service in Vietnam, and is on the board of the Medal of Honor Society, said he is delighted to hear about the possibility of a living serviceman receiving the award. The 90 living Medal of Honor recipients who make up the society have also been looking forward to this day.
"It's always been the case that 60 to 70 percent of the cases have been posthumous," Brady said, "but these kids today are marvelous soldiers and every bit as heroic as we were in the past. So many people truly have been wondering why in the heck the military hasn't been awarding these guys."
Changed Nature of the Fighting Might Account for Fewer Awards
Brady believes servicemen fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq consistently demonstrate a level of heroism that makes it natural to expect that there would already be a living Medal of Honor recipient from those conflicts. " My take is that the standards these guys are setting [for heroism] today are pretty damn high," he said.
Brady speculated that perhaps the changed nature of the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq might account for fewer Medal of Honor recipients from these wars.
"The kind of combat we saw in Vietnam was face-to- face, hand-to-hand, man-on-man," he said. "Now it's IED-on-man."
"God willing," said Brady, "we'll have a young man that deserved it and earned it, and we'll be welcoming him with open arms into the society."