Even after President Obama approved Medal of Honor awards last month for two soldiers who fought in Afghanistan, the number of such honorees from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is far lower than for previous conflicts.
Military veterans and at least one member of Congress have challenged the Pentagon to explain the discrepancy, and some critics have accused the military of politicizing the awards process.
A study last year by the Army Times newspaper found that from World War I through World War II, Korea and Vietnam, the number of Medal of Honor recipients ranged from 23 to 29 per million troops. But in Iraq and Afghanistan, there has been barely one award per million troops.
Only eight Medal of Honor awards have been approved for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan, compared with 464 during World War II. Just one of the medals for bravery in Afghanistan or Iraq was to a living recipient, Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore A. Giunta, whose award was announced by the White House on Sept. 10. Rob Miller, 24, a weapons specialist from Wheaton, Ill., will receive the award posthumously on Wednesday.
Established in 1861, the Medal of Honor has been awarded 3,470 times, including 1,522 from the Civil War, according to the U.S. Army Center of Military History. Under military regulations, the medal is awarded to a service member who "distinguishes himself or herself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life or her life above and beyond the call of duty." The rules also require "incontestable proof" of the deed.
One explanation for the relative paucity of recipients is the changing nature of warfare.
"The Taliban fight like Apaches and rarely close against Americans [equipped] with superior firepower," said Bing West, a Marine veteran of Vietnam, former assistant secretary of Defense and author of books about Marines in Iraq.
As one battlefield historian has written, "It's hard to be a hero against an IED," or homemade bomb.
Nevertheless, some veterans say, many service members have performed extraordinary acts of valor in Afghanistan and Iraq.
" The Pentagon has created almost an impossible standard," said Joseph A. Kinney, a Vietnam veteran who has testified before Congress about the Medal of Honor.
Kinney and other veterans say the Pentagon has become overly cautious in the face of high-tech forensics, a skeptical news media and more second-guessing. The medals process was tarnished when the Pentagon was caught creating false narratives to justify medals awarded in the high-profile cases of Army Ranger Pat Tillman and Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch.
Kinney said the Pentagon checks Medal of Honor candidates, nominated by each branch of service, for past disciplinary violations, messy divorces, questionable personal habits, immigration violations and other background issues. And because a few Medal of Honor winners in Vietnam later protested against the war, Kinney said, the Pentagon also worries about nominees' political leanings.
"They don't want an award winner embarrassing them later," Kinney said.
A Pentagon spokeswoman, Eileen Lainez, said the Defense Department was "aware of no basis for such claims."
"The criteria for the [medal] are longstanding and have not changed for the current conflicts," she said in an e-mail. "Nominations go through no more or less scrutiny than in the past."
Lainez said increased dependence on "stand-off" weapons, such as drones and manned attack aircraft, coupled with modern surveillance techniques, produced fewer "individual combat actions" most likely to produce heroic actions.
At the insistence of Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Alpine), a Marine veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, a provision was added to the Pentagon budget bill last year requiring Defense Secretary Robert Gates to explain the selection process and why so few Medals of Honor have been awarded. That report is expected by year's end.
Duncan also asked Gates why awards for seven of eight honorees from Afghanistan and Iraq have been posthumous. The Army history center says nearly half of the Medal of Honor awards during World War II — 43% — went to living recipients, as did 29% for Korea and 37% for Vietnam.
Marines have been especially aggressive in questioning the awards process.
Among Marines, no case has been more controversial than that of Sgt. Rafael Peralta, who was nominated by the Marine commandant for the Medal of Honor for smothering a grenade in Fallouja, Iraq, saving the lives of several comrades. Marines who witnessed Peralta's actions insisted that although he was gravely wounded, he made his heroic gesture willingly. But some forensic experts disagreed, contending that he was already brain-dead and his act mere involuntary muscle movement.
Some veterans raised the possibility that Peralta's onetime status as an illegal immigrant played a part in the decision, according to the Army Times study.
Lainez, at the Pentagon, said Gates asked five independent reviewers to study Peralta's nomination. Each one "independently concluded that the evidence did not meet the exacting standard necessary to support award" of the medal, she said, adding that Gates agreed after careful consideration.
Referring to the Peralta review, Gates said the Medal of Honor selection process must be without dispute or disagreement. Those comments left some military brass wondering whether advancements in forensic science and skepticism by war correspondents toward official battlefield narratives have made Gates and other decision-makers reluctant to bestow the award.
To Hunter, the award is more than a medal; it's a message to the nation.
"It's important that those service members who risked their lives, sacrificing their own safety to protect others, receive the recognition they deserve and continue inspiring the next generation of Americans," he said.
Zucchino reported from Durham, N.C., and Perry from San Diego.