Medals and belt buckles

Michael Raffety


One of our readers called to complain that it is incorrect to refer to the Medal of Honor as the “Congressional Medal of Honor.”

Strictly speaking, he is correct, even though the medal was authorized by an act of Congress.

And if Wikipedia is to believed, here is the wording: “The President may award, and present in the name of Congress, a medal of honor of appropriate design, with ribbons and appurtenances, to a person who while a member of the Army (naval service; Navy and Marine Corps) (Air Force) (Coast Guard), distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.”

The military shunned medals until the Civil War, considering it a European thing.

Not all medals of honor went to combatants. Congress specifically approved medals of honor for Arctic explorers Cmdr. Richard E. Byrd and Floyd Bennett.

In 2002, Congress also authorized a Medal of Honor Flag to be awarded along with the medal. Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith was the first recipient of the flag when presented by the Medal of Honor by President George W. Bush in 2005.

Something I did not know about the Medal of Honor, other than the fact that officers must salute enlisted personnel who have been awarded the Medal of Honor, is that they have a number of special benefits.

Each medal recipient receives a pension of $1,259 a month with cost-of-living increases. If they are still serving they get a supplemental uniform allowance. And they get to fly on the military transport system along with their dependents. They and their dependents get commissary privileges. Furthermore, their dependents are eligible for admission to U.S. military academies without nomination or quota requirements. If they stay in the service the requisite 20 years to qualify for retirement, then their retirement pay is boosted by 10 percent.

They are also invited to all presidential inaugurations and balls.

The Medal of Honor has been awarded to 3,450 persons, including one woman civilian Union Army surgeon during the Battle of Bull Run. Nineteen have been awarded it twice, primarily during World War I. Six hundred and twenty-one were awarded posthumously. The most recent award was Marine Cpl. Kyle Carpenter on June 19. There are 107 living recipients of the Medal of Honor.

  • • •

One of my favorite people died June 9. The headline in our paper for Mark Smith was “Larger than life.” That  pretty much summed up Mark A. Smith. I met him when he returned from the historic Jeep trip from South America to Alaska in April 1979. Fifteen joined Smith in the 31-day trip that covered 20,000 miles from Ushuaia on Tierra del Fuego, South America to Prudhoe, Alaska. Along the way the group of Jeep CJ7s did what had never been accomplished when they crossed the 250-mile Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama.

I convinced the ad department to support a 24-page special edition on this amazing trip. We even listed a price of 25 cents on the cover, which was more than the newsstand price of the Mountain Democrat at that time. In my introduction to the special edition, I wrote, “As the 1980s draw near it is refreshing to learn that wilderness remains to be explored and trails to be blazed.”

It’s amazing to me, actually, that I remember all but one of the ad reps and all but one or two of the production crew, and all but one of the writers.

Besides Smith, at least two of the team on that trip have already died, as well as two writers, two ad reps and one of the production crew.

Mark Smith was a class act. So were all the members of his team: Fred Robie, Dr. Leon Rendon Valez, Chip Gash, Mike and Ken Arnold, Stu Asbjornsen, Ken Collins, Tim Stigen, Carlos Martinez, Bob Goodpasture, Bob Renier, Tony Alphonso, Al Grim, Mike Averbeck, Jim Wageman and photographer Bob Toren.

The writers, myself included, found it exciting to interview the adventurers. We were able to interview 13 out of the 16. I still have a commemorative belt buckle that Mark Smith gave me. It reminds me of Mark Smith and the vicarious enjoyment I got from interviewing him and some of his team members on a trip that is not likely to be repeated.


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