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Silver Star upgrade sought for soldiers

Oct. 8, 2012 - 08:26AM   |   Last Updated: Oct. 8, 2012 - 08:26AM  |  
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., is seeking recognition for nine soldiers who were recommended for a Silver Star for their actions on a 2002 mission protecting a little-known Afghan statesman who later became president.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., is seeking recognition for nine soldiers who were recommended for a Silver Star for their actions on a 2002 mission protecting a little-known Afghan statesman who later became president. ()
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A California lawmaker who served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine Corps officer wants the secretary of the Army to take a closer look at nine possible Silver Stars to make sure they were awarded to their recipients.

At least one of the nine, a retired Special Forces master sergeant, said that if he and two others were approved for the Silver Star, they were never told. Ronnie Raikes told Army Times he was badly wounded while on a team that just weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, infiltrated southern Afghanistan and protected Hamid Karzai, then a little-known statesman hunted by the Taliban and now the country's president.

Raikes said he and two others from the 11-member Operational Detachment Alpha 574 received the Bronze Star in 2002 for their actions. The team left Afghanistan after a friendly fire bomb attack that killed three soldiers and wounded the rest of the team.

"If we did receive the Silver Star, it would be significant to me because it says the Army is doing right by us," said Raikes, 50, of Clarksville, Tenn. "We worked our asses off, and we didn't know then that Hamid Karzai would be president."

The other two living soldiers listed as Silver Star recipients on the database from Raikes' team are Michael McElhiney and Gilbert Magallanes. In congressional testimony advocating for better health care for veterans, Magallanes' wife said the bomb attack left Magallanes with an extensive brain injury and a raft of medical problems.

The team's commander, Lt. Col. Jason Amerine, told Army Times that among other awards for his men, he recommended those three for the Silver Star, but it was downgraded to the Bronze Star.

Two men from the unit who were killed on the mission were awarded the Silver Star posthumously. He had not heard of any of the awards being upgraded recently.

"They did an incredible job over there." Amerine said. "Yeah, they were badly injured, but they were extremely brave. They earned the Silver Star, and they were the worst injured."

Eric Blehm, the author of the action's definitive account, "The Only Thing Worth Dying For," told Army Times, "It's a travesty" if the men were never awarded the Silver Star.

"Their mission was considered the most risky and the most politically significant mission," Blehm said. "It's horrible that the only ones to get it were killed; there are other ones on that team who deserve it."

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a member of the House Armed Services Committee, made a request to Army Secretary John McHugh days after a database that contained Social Security numbers for some of the Army's highest award recipients wound up online.

That database also contained nine more Silver Stars than the Defense Department's listings, Hunter said in the Oct. 3 letter to McHugh.

"It is the obligation of the Army to maintain an awards process that is devoid of lapses in communication, transparency and, most importantly, ensuring America's military heroes are honored with the combat decorations they deserve," the letter reads. "The idea that the Army could have failed to inform soldiers of significant award upgrades is disconcerting, along with the public release of Social Security numbers of 31 individuals including six Medal of Honor recipients."

Army Times reached one other soldier listed among the nine, a former Special Forces sergeant first class, and he confirmed that he had known he was awarded a Silver Star for actions in 2003.

The exposed database since removed contained 518 records of the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross and Silver Star recipients for actions since the war in Afghanistan began in 2001. In the database, Social Security numbers appeared for 31 soldiers total: the six MoH and 25 DSC recipients but none of the Silver Star recipients.

The Army had provided the data to the Alexandria, Va., creative services firm Brightline, which builds its "Gallery of Heroes" kiosk for the Association of the U.S. Army convention. However, representatives of both the Army and the company said Oct. 3 it was unclear how the data was posted on the company's online server.

The exposed database was not an official Army database, ac-cording to Col. Jonathan Withington, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon. However, he said the Army has assigned an officer to conduct an investigation into its exact origins and how it wound up online.

The Army is, in accordance with DoD regulations, in the process of notifying the 31 affected people and explaining the circumstances describing the breach and how it was found, Withington said.

He said the Army may not ultimately disclose publicly whether the nine soldiers received the Silver Star.

"When soldiers are awarded for valor and assigned to classified units, their [award citations] remain classified and out of the public domain," Withington said.

Hunter, an advocate for transparency in the military awards process, acknowledged the database could have contained errors, but expressed concern that the nine individuals absent from the DoD's awards list had not been properly recognized.

"I respectfully request that the Army take immediate action to review Silver Star upgrades and, if necessary, notify any soldiers deserving of higher recognition," Hunter's letter reads. "I'm also concerned that this issue could be representative of a larger problem and I would encourage the Army to undertake a review of its awards process to guarantee the proper decorations are being awarded for military service and combat action."

Doug Sterner, who curates the Military Times "Hall of Valor" and discovered the database online while conducting research, said that if the Army failed to present the Silver Star to soldiers who were approved for it, "that's bad."

"It's understandable that there were lapses in the system during World War II, though unconscionable, because that was not the age of technology we live in today," Sterner said. "Why give awards if you don't keep track of them?"

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