Where Are The Medals For Troops In Iraq?

The war in Iraq is lumbering toward its fourth year, and the American body count has passed 3,000. But, as CBS News correspondent Thalia Assuras reports, questions are being raised about why so few medals for valor have been awarded to the men and women who have sacrificed so much in this conflict compared to wars of the past.

Some of the fiercest fighting of the war was in Fallujah in November 2004 –a month that saw 136 U.S. soldiers killed.

Staff-Sergeant David Bellavia remembers. He was there. "The embers were flying everywhere, tracer fire like a hornets nest, just exploding in a room," he says. "There was no safe spot."

Bellavia – who was videotaped by CBS caring for a wounded soldier during the battle – took on a house full of insurgents – alone.

"I used my weapon and I used my helmet and my plate and a knife and everything I had in my power because I was literally fighting for my life," he says.

Bellavia lost his entire chain of command in Fallujah, but that day in that house he fought and won, killing at least four insurgents. Bellavia's unit recommended him for the military's highest award - the Medal of Honor.

He was awarded a Silver Star.

"It's the most humbling thing in the world, but it's embarrassing," he says now.

Embarrassing, says Bellavia, because so many others are not being recognized with valor medals.

"I think we would be in a better state right now as a military and a nation if we honored those young men and women who are doing their jobs," he says.

Past wars seem to have produced more heroes. In World War Two, the military awarded 464 Medals of Honor; in Vietnam 245. But in Iraq, there have only been two.

As for service crosses, which are the second highest honor that the Army, Navy and Air Force award: 8,716 were given out in World War Two. So far in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have now lasted longer than WWII, just 26 have been given.

Military analysts say part of the reason fewer medals have been awarded in this conflict is that it's a different kind of war.

Some of the reasons why:

  • Iraq is not a traditional battlefield.
  • Fighting is often done with high-tech weapons rather than hand to hand combat.
  • IEDs are often the enemy, rather than human beings.

    "There are simply different opportunities, I think, in a conflict to demonstrate heroism and this particular conflict may present opportunities that are different from the past," says Bill Carr, the acting Deputy Undersecretary of Defense who is the head of a multi-branch commission reviewing the pentagon's award policy.

    The commission is expected to recommend some changes this summer, but Carr says they will only be minor revisions. He sees no reason to change the policy for the highest valor awards.

    "Each Medal of Honor that I've seen has met the standards precisely," Carr says. "It's been carefully reviewed by commanders asking questions of each other, checking back with witnesses, so the process is a comprehensive one."

    That explanation doesn't really satisfy Bellavia. He says there needs to be a complete overhaul.

    "We need every branch of service on the same page," he says. "And obviously, we need someone from the Unites States Congress to supervise."

    Bellavia is on a crusade to make that happen.

    "It's extremely personal and only because of the fact that my best friends have bled and died," he says. "I lost 36 brothers in one year."