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September 15th, 2014
06:16 PM ET

Vets of Iraq, Afghanistan being short-changed on the Medal of Honor?

(CNN) – The Medal of Honor is the nation's highest military honor, signifying extraordinary acts of valor.

But increasingly, those who have served in our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are asking: Why are so few of today's troops considered worthy of the honor?

World Wars I and II, and the wars in Korea and Vietnam brought hundreds of Medals of Honor – WWI 130 medals, WWII 472, Korea 146, and Vietnam now 258 has after Monday's presentations to Sgt. Maj. Bennie Adkins and Spc. Donald P. Sloat.

For the Iraq War, there have been just four medals presented, all posthumously. America's longest war in Afghanistan has just 12.

Why?

In 2010, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said a change in medals reflected a change in warfare.

"I think part of the reason is the nature of war today, in the sense that particularly in Afghanistan, our enemies generally use weapons at a distance from us ... as we've gotten better intelligence, there is less hand-to-hand combat, although there is still plenty of that," said Gates.

That reasoning drew ire from veterans like Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-California.

"These are men rushing the enemy, looking them in the eye, and sometimes finishing them off with their knives, with their helmets, with empty rifles used as clubs. If that's not close-quarter combat, I don't know what is," Hunter said in 2011. "Not recognizing them for what they're doing is a travesty."

Another theory comes from Vietnam veteran and historian Doug Sterner.

"We have people at the top who are reluctant to admit that we have a broken awards system and fix it," he said.

The current generation of fighters is being denied recognition not because their actions are any less heroic, but because their leaders don't know a medal contender when they see one, Sterner says.

"During the Vietnam War the commanders in the field, most of them were veterans of combat in Korea and WWII, and they had seen Medal of Honor actions, they understood what levels of valor they were witnessing," he said. "The commanders in the field in Iraq and Afghanistan, some have seen some limited actions in the Persian Gulf in 1991, but they had no personal experience ... on which to base their recommendation."

Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby rejects that idea. He notes that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel this year launched a comprehensive review of the medals process.

"We're willing to admit that maybe the process is a little slower than it needs to be, maybe there's some things we need to clean up. But I absolutely disagree with any notion that our commanders on the ground are not - are ignorant of the sacrifices and the bravery, or are somehow not applying themselves," said Kirby.

"It has, since WWII, maintained an extremely high level for an award, and we want to make sure we don't cheapen that in any way whatsoever," said Kirby.

Does maintaining high levels for the award mean that today's soldiers have not reached that level to the numbers of previous soldiers?

"We're not saying that at all. We know that there are Medals of Honor being considered right now," he said.

Even when a rare nomination is made, those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan experience longer delays in receiving their medals than any other group.

According to The Miltary Times, the average wait between the date of action and the Medal of Honor ceremony has more than tripled since the Korean War. Kirby said it is unclear why the wait time is so long, adding "that's one of the things the secretary wants to review, he wants to look at that process."

The Pentagon has just launched a new military campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, with much unfinished business remaining for those who served in the last war in Iraq, and the war in Afghanistan, even as it is winding down.

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