The Air Force is the only service that does not have a Medal of Honor in the Global War on Terror, and with another airman's heroic action in battle resulting in an Air Force Cross, experts are again asking: What does an airman have to do?
Senior Airman Dustin Temple, a combat controller with the 21st Special Tactics Squadron at Pope Field, North Carolina, showed extraordinary heroism in a September battle, repeatedly exposing himself to enemy fire to recover an injured soldier and resupply his team. He is the seventh airman to receive the Air Force Cross, the second-highest valor award, since 2001.
"Airman Temple's heroic and selfless actions directly resulted in confirmed 10 enemy fighters killed, and another eight estimated killed, while saving the lives of more than 80 friendly forces," his Air Force Cross citation states. "Through his extraordinary heroism, superb airmanship and aggressiveness in the face of the enemy, Airman Temple has reflected the highest credit upon himself and the United States Air Force."
Temple was originally nominated for the Silver Star, Air Force Special Operations Command spokeswoman 1st Lt. Katrina Cheesman said.
Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. Pete Hughes, speaking on behalf of other Air Force officials, said that Temple was still up for a Silver Star when his nomination landed before the three-person decorations board that met in mid-January. That board also considered the award nominations for Tech. Sgt. Matthew Greiner and Senior Airman Goodie Goodman, who also received Silver Stars for their bravery in the same September battle Temple fought in.
Hughes said that the board quickly decided all three airmen's heroism deserved recognition. But Temple's actions stood out as particularly remarkable, he said, and the board decided to recommend to Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James that he receive the Air Force Cross.
The Air Force would not say whether the board considered recommending Temple for the Medal of Honor.
Defense Department spokesman Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen said the Office of the Secretary of Defense did not receive a recommendation from James regarding a possible Medal of Honor for Temple.
Army Capt. Evan Lacenski, the leader on the mission and 7th Group Special Forces team leader, put Temple in for an award, and the determination was up to the Air Force. Lacenski said Temple needed to be recognized "like the American hero" he is.
"His citation is solid," said Doug Sterner, curator of the Military Times Hall of Valor and an expert on military awards who has testified before Congress on the topic. "He put himself in front of his buddy, dragged him across an open space. What does it take to get a Medal of Honor?"
The Air Force awarded four Medals of Honor for Korea, all to pilots, and 14 for the Vietnam War, all but three to pilots. There are only three living Air Force Medal of Honor recipients, with none for the current generation, Sterner said.
"Where is the Air Force Medal of Honor recipient for the next generation?" Sterner said. "I don't know why the Air Force isn't advocating for it."
The Air Force's strongest case for a Medal of Honor came in 2011, when then-Staff Sgt. Robert Gutierrez was awarded the Air Force Cross for a 2009 battle in Afghanistan, Sterner said. Gutierrez, also a combat controller, was deployed with a Special Forces team to target a Taliban commander in Afghanistan's Herat Province. The team infiltrated a village and came under fire from insurgents. Gutierrez covered for a soldier whose gun jammed, when a shooter on a rooftop shot Gutierrez in the left shoulder. Gutierrez fired back, killing the insurgent.
Gutierrez dropped to the ground, and tried to call for a medic but couldn't breathe because his lung had collapsed from the shot. A medic jammed a syringe in his chest to relieve pressure. While this happened, Gutierrez reached for his radio and called for airstrikes from nearby F-16s and directed danger-close air support from A-10s, before calling for his own evacuation helicopter.
When Gutierrez received the Air Force Cross, many in the combat control community asked why he wasn't considered for the highest valor award.
"I just think he did the job the medal was written for," Gene Adcock, president of the Combat Control School Heritage Foundation, said at the time.
But Sterner is unconvinced.
"What does any airman have to do?" he said. "There has not been an Air Force Medal of Honor for any action since the Vietnam War. It makes you really wonder what is going on within the Air Force."
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.