Medal of Honor: Gold or Brass?

ByABC News
February 5, 2002, 4:11 PM

W A S H I N G T O N, Feb. 5, 2004 -- How much is a hero worth? One of the nation's most revered medals costs barely $30 to produce; one of its least-known costs $30,000.

Sixteen lawmakers in Washington have decided to balance the books by sponsoring a bill to upgrade the Congressional Medal of Honor.

An inquiry by The Washington Times showed that the Congressional Medal of Honor, awarded for exceptional wartime combat gallantry, costs $29.98 to produce and is made mostly of brass alloy.

"Mine doesn't look good anymore," said Finnis McCleery, 74, of San Angelo, Texas. "It's tarnished and dirty." McCleery, who was awarded the CMH for action on May 14, 1968 in Vietnam, said he would favor an effort to dress up the medal. "I think it's a fine idea."

A bill introduced a year ago by Rep. Joe Baca, a California Democrat, would require that the medal be produced with 90 percent gold content, the same composition as the lesser-known Congressional Gold Medal.

Each version of that medal, awarded to such dignitaries as former South African president Nelson Mandela and the late movie star John Wayne, costs $30,000, according to Baca's staff.

But not every one of the Congressional Medal of Honor winners thinks the upgrade is a good idea.

'It's the Symbol'

"Not really," said George Wahlen of Roy, Utah, who won his medal as a Navy medical corpsman serving with the Marines on Iwo Jima in World War II. "It's the symbol of the thing that's important," he told ABCNEWS, "whether it cost $50 or $500."

Combat veteran Einar Ingman, 72, of Irma, Wisc., said an upgrade in materials and value "doesn't make any sense. I'd rather see an increase in our pensions."

Ingman won his Medal of Honor for action in Korea on Feb. 6, 1951, when he ignored a commander's concern for his wounds and stormed a hilltop, knocking out enemy gun positions and retaking the hill.

Another winner who would prefer a larger pension is McClerry, a Texas grandfather whose grandson is suffering medical problems and whose granddaughter is raising three children without a husband.