Normally, a structure begins with a solid foundation, construed to mean “at ground level,” and works itself upward to its pinnacle. The United States military awards system works just the opposite. The current system begins at the pinnacle and works its way downward. At the pinnacle of this system is the United States Medal of Honor.
The Medal of Honor is the nation’s highest military award for bravery, awarded by the President of the United States in the name of the United States Congress. For this reason, the medal is often referred to as the Congressional Medal of Honor, but its official title is simply the Medal of Honor. So far in its history, since its introduction in 1863, the Medal of Honor (also, MoH) has been awarded 3,512 times to 3,493 recipients. Nineteen individuals have been double recipients of the award. Since the award’s inception, the laws and regulations that apply to it have changed. In some instances, the award has been rescinded. Six rescinded awards have been reinstated.
On several occasions, legislation has been offered to waive certain restrictions — to encourage the President to award the Medal of Honor to particular individuals. In the most general sense, this type of legislation is rarely enacted. In limited number of cases, the medal has been awarded outside legal restrictions concerning time limits. These cases are often based on technical errors, lost documents or eyewitness accounts, or other factors that justify reconsideration. Such cases are an exception to the rule.
At the beginning
The tradition of recognizing American military men (later, women) dates to the American Revolution. In the American colonies, the oldest military decoration was the Fidelity Medallion, created by the Continental Congress in 1780 and presented to the men responsible for capturing British Major John André — the officer who worked with Benedict Arnold to betray the colonies.
The recipients of the Fidelity Medallion were members of the New York militia: Privates Isaac Van Wart, David Williams, and John Paulding. The medal was never again awarded — and it is for this reason that the first United States (as opposed to Continental) medal awarded was the Badge of Military Merit, created in 1782. In the new egalitarian America, it is also significant that the first medals were awarded to enlisted men, not officers.
On 7 August 1782, General George Washington designed the Badge of Military Merit. It was a cloth or silk figure of a heart, recognizing meritorious or gallant conduct. But credit for instigating the practice of awards recognition belongs to George Washington. Only three men received this hand-made decoration: (a) Sergeant Elijah Churchill: 2nd Regiment, Light Dragoons. He was awarded the badge for his part in two successful raids behind British lines in Nov. 1780 and in October of 1781. (b) Sergeant William Brown: 5th Connecticut Regiment. Awarded the badge for leading an advance party — with only bayonets — penetrating the British lines at Yorktown, VA on 14 October 1781, and (c) Sergeant Daniel Bissell: 2nd Connecticut Regiment. Awarded the badge for masquerading as a British soldier from August 1781 to September 1782. Again, all three recipients were enlisted men — and this design, by General Washington, became the forerunner of the modern Purple Heart Medal.
Between General Washington’s Merit Badge and the American Civil War, government officials issued certificates of merit and “brevet promotions” to recognize courageous conduct and meritorious military service. Thus, the first military decoration formally authorized by the United States government to symbolize valorous conduct was the Medal of Honor, approved for enlisted men of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. President Lincoln signed the authorization on 21 December 1861. In July 1862, Congress approved a Medal of Honor suitable for the U.S. Army (and Volunteer Army of the United States).
During the Civil War, more than 2,000 Medals of Honor were issued. Allegations of fraud and shady politics in the award of the medal led to a review of all those issued to Army members prior to 1917. A commission of five retired general officers determined that 911 of the medals had been improperly awarded. Those awards included medals given to members of the 27th Maine Regiment for reenlisting during the Civil War, along with those presented to members of the Presidential Honor Guard at Lincoln’s funeral. Also included was the only MoH awarded to a woman: Mary Walker, a union surgeon.
Fifty-four years after the creation of the Medal of Honor (1861), at a time when the Medal of Honor was the only U.S. award for valor, officials of the Navy Department and War Department understood that servicemen were still behaving with extreme courage on the battlefield, but simply not to the level expected of the Medal of Honor. For this reason, the Navy and Army developed additional decorations designed to recognize battlefield bravery of a lesser standard than that of the Medal of Honor.
In the Navy, officials ordered the creation of the Navy Distinguished Service Medal as second in line to the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross Medal as third in line. Army officials approved the Army Distinguished Service Medal and the Army Distinguished Service Cross. In 1942, the precedence of these awards was reversed so that the Navy Cross and Army Distinguished Service Cross became the second highest awards, followed by the Distinguished Service medals as the third highest awards.
Within the Navy Department, the Navy Cross was created to recognize valorous sailors and Marines whose performance would not qualify them for thenation’ss highest award. The Navy Cross, designed by James Earle Fraser, has been awarded 6,300 times. Since 2001, the Navy Cross has been awarded 47 times — in two instances, the name of its recipient was classified secret.
The Navy Cross may be awarded to any member of the U.S. Armed Forces while serving with the Navy, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard (when serving under the Navy Department) who distinguish themselves by extraordinary heroism, not justifying an award of the Medal of Honor. Such actions must take place under one of three sets of circumstances:
- In combat action, while engaged against an enemy of the United States; or,
- In combat action, while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force; or,
- In combat action while serving with friendly foreign forces, who are engaged in armed conflict in which the United States is not a belligerent party.
The act(s) of heroism must be performed in the presence of great danger or at great personal risk and must be performed in such a manner as to render the individual’s action(s) highly conspicuous among others of equal grade, rate, experience, or position of responsibility. An accumulation of minor acts of heroism does not justify an award of the Navy Cross.
One of the recipients was a war dog handler —
William B. Soutra is a son of Worcester, Massachusetts. When he joined the U.S. Marine Corps, he became the third generation of his family to serve as a Devil Dog. William, who everyone calls Billy, did more than serve his country; he made history.
Soutra’s plan was simple enough. He wanted to sign on the dotted line, enlist for a few years, do some growing up, and then return home with all kinds of stories to tell. Once he was in the Corps, he wanted to do more than the average Marine (as if being a superhero isn’t enough excitement). What Billy wanted to do is become a K-9 handler.
It was a tough program to get into, but Soutra managed it. He initially worked with police dog breeds on basic patrol and scout work. In 2006, the war was ramping up, and the Marines needed more dog handlers. Following basic training, the Marine Corps selected Soutra to attend the specialized search dog (SSD) course, which at the time was a new frontier — its demand was the result of a new threat everyone was calling an Improvised Explosive Device (I.E.D.). It was a competitive selection, and Soutra made the cut.
In February 2007, Soutra was posted to Security Battalion, Marine Corps Base, Camp Pendleton, CA. His first dog post-graduation was a Belgian Malinois (also, Belgian Shepherd). The team would deploy together in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. They performed combat patrols in Fallujah. The dog, named Dina, was highly protective and intelligent. She responded to hand signals from Soutra. In 2008, Billy and Dina returned to Camp Pendleton. Dina was seven years old; she was ready for retirement.
His next dog was a completely black male German Shepherd named Posha. His reputation was aggressive and fearless; he didn’t play nice with the other animals. Posha was an Alpha Male. During their deployment to Iraq in 2009, Soutra and Posha’s teamwork was so precise and seamless that, in a rare event, the Marines meritoriously promoted Soutra to Sergeant and, by extension, Posha to Staff Sergeant.
As the Marine Corps was in the process of developing three Military Working Dog platoons, there was an immediate need for Soutra and Posha, which in 2010 took the team to Company B, 1st Marine Special Operations Battalion supporting Operation Enduring Freedom. While patrolling with Afghan Commandos in Helmand Province, Soutra’s unit became pinned down by a complex ambuscade initiated by an I.E.D. that mortally wounded Soutra’s element leader, a staff sergeant. In the following actions, Sergeant Soutra distinguished himself, earning the nation’s second-highest decoration for heroism on the battlefield.
With the team leader incapacitated, Soutra immediately assumed command of the element and, with complete disregard for his own life, moved across the open terrain to each commando’s position, orienting them and directing their fires upon the enemy.
Under intense fire, Soutra fearlessly moved forward with the team Corpsman to reach the fallen element leader. While the Corpsman rendered aid, Sergeant Soutra placed a tourniquet on a severely wounded commando nearby and pulled him to safety. Repeatedly exposing himself to enemy fire, he again moved from position to position to orient and direct friendly fire and accurately relay enemy information to supporting aircraft overhead. Professionally and calmly, Soutra enabled coordinated a successful evacuation of the casualties, personally carrying one of the wounded men 75 meters to safety.
Nearly 70 minutes later, Sergeant Soutra rallied the platoon and maneuvered them safely out of the kill zone, with Posha remaining at his side throughout the actions. It was Soutra’s decisive leadership, his exceptional courage in the face of heavy enemy fire, and his complete dedication to duty that earned him the Navy Cross.
Official military news releases use phrases such as — “moving exposed down the line,” and “rushed into the kill zone,” and “flurries of insurgent machine gun and mortar fire.” But when Soutra speaks of this period, he mostly speaks of his combat partner. He’ll even tell you that Posha owns half of that Navy Cross. According to Soutra, “Posha made me the Marine I am today.”
Sergeant Soutra cannot say enough good things about Posha. “During all of the gunfire, as we moved into the firefight, he didn’t hesitate, he didn’t cower, he did everything exactly when and how I did it for two straight days. If he had faltered or balked at any point, it could have been different.” He added, “He always reacted the same way. He saved my life.”
While Posha made it through the second combat deployment, he later succumbed to cancer and was euthanized in 2011. His loss was particularly difficult for Billy Soutra. In 2012, Soutra said, “It’s been a year now, but it still hurts when I think about how he got cancer and had to be put down.”
Posha’s ashes rest in an urn at a place ofSoutra’st Soutra’s bedside. If Soutra has his way, his German Shepherd hero, now buried in his heart, will one day be buried with him — so that they’ll always be together.
Semper Fi, Posha.
 The Continental Congress did vote to award George Washington, Horatio Gates, and John Paul Jones with gold medallions in recognition for their efforts in defeating the British forces, but none of these were awarded until after the end of the Revolutionary War, in 1790.
 The information gathered by Sergeant Bissell helped the Continental Army prepare for an attack on the British in New York City.
 Navy and Marine Corps officers were not eligible to receive the Medal of Honor until 1915.
 Later restored.
 Many European nations had a well-established custom of decorating servicemen for various levels of courage in the face of the enemy.
One thought on “The Navy Cross”
Triumphant and inspiring, as always.
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