Commentary

The Medal of Honor: Why is it withheld from parents?

Master Sgt. John “Chappy” Chapman is my brother. He gave his life on March 4, 2002, so others, most of whom he didn’t know, could live. He was awarded the Air Force Cross in a ceremony on Jan. 10, 2003, during which both of my parents received his medal, as did his widow. In May 2015, then-Secretary of the Air Force Deborah James requested the names of airmen who might possibly have their awards upgraded to the Medal of Honor and John’s name topped the list. Since John’s death, we have always thought his Air Force Cross should have been the Medal of Honor, so we followed the story closely and tapped into personal sources to stay abreast.

Ultimately, it took over two years for John’s upgrade to be confirmed, partly because of the change in the White House administration, but thanks to Col. Mike Wendelken and the countless hours his team put in to support the upgrade, John would finally be awarded what he earned. Long before President Trump signed John’s upgrade package, we had been advised that, should it happen, only his widow would receive the medal because the nation’s highest military honor is closely monitored. We were ensured, though, by various levels of the Air Force, that every effort would be made to allow Mom to receive the medal, too. My father passed away in January of 2004, so they only needed to approve one. The promise that “it might happen” was repeated almost up until the ceremony so our expectations were high that Mom, the woman who birthed a hero, would receive his medal. She deserved at least that.

The Medal of Honor ceremony was held on Aug. 22, 2018, and it was a hugely celebrated event. It was a moment of satisfaction for me because the world finally knew the truth about John’s actions … at least most of it. Unfortunately, Mom didn’t receive John’s medal, despite requests that went to the highest level of the Air Force.

So my question is: “Why is the Medal of Honor withheld from parents when there is a spouse?” One of the people in charge of planning the ceremony pulled my husband, Kenny, aside and shared a thought. For context, Kenny was the first sergeant of John’s unit when John gave his life. Mr. In-Charge (I mean no disrespect; I’m just not naming names) and his wife have two sons currently serving in our military and one is married. He said it was a gut-check that what was happening to my mother could happen to them someday. That was clear indication that he understood the inequities of how Mom was being treated. He said the thought that his wife would be left out of the highest military honor, should their married son posthumously earn it, was sobering to him. Imagine how my mom felt actually living that scenario.

Air Force Tech. Sgt. John Chapman was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. A combat controller, Chapman is the 19th airman awarded the Medal of Honor since the Air Force was established in 1947. (Air Force)
Air Force Tech. Sgt. John Chapman was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. A combat controller, Chapman is the 19th airman awarded the Medal of Honor since the Air Force was established in 1947. (Air Force)

The two-year anniversary of my brother’s Medal of Honor ceremony is fast approaching and my heart still aches for Mom. I understand the military’s desire to keep strict control over our nation’s highest honor, but to exclude parents is disrespectful and deeply hurtful. Mom and Dad each received John’s Air Force Cross, so why wouldn’t his remaining parent then receive the upgraded and highest award her son earned? It makes no sense. The number of deceased Medal of Honor recipients is small in relation to any other medal and I’m sure the military can keep track of a few extra medals, so why is it kept from parents when there is a spouse? Why was it kept from my mom? I was an advocate for John’s upgrade for years and I will always be an advocate for my mom and any other parent who finds himself/herself in the untenable position of exclusion from such an important honor. It’s not right, it’s not fair, and it’s something the military can and should remedy. Many who have reached high levels in our armed forces also have children who serve. Perhaps if they stop for one second — put themselves in my mother’s shoes and consider what that posthumous medal would mean to them or their spouse — they would realize the “one and done” dispersal of the posthumous Medal of Honor needs to change. It’s not too much to ask and it would avoid adding to the pain that will never go away.

Additionally, I know of at least two “display medals” that have been approved in separate places; medals that I can only assume are actual Medals of Honor since they were not easy to obtain. If those medals can be approved so a unit can display its pride in a fallen brother, then that fallen man’s parents should absolutely receive one. It’s not a matter of “it can’t be done/” It can be done — and it should be done.

In closing, I realize that this may sound trivial to some, but trust me, once you’ve lost a son or daughter in war, every story, every photo, every video, and certainly every posthumous honor is exponentially more cherished. My mother’s pain is evident every single day. Receiving John’s Medal of Honor wouldn’t alleviate her pain, but it would lift her heart. I’m not asking for myself; I’m asking for the mother of an American hero and for all future unfortunate parents who may find themselves in Mom’s shoes. I implore the military — the Air Force at the very least — to make this right and stop adding to the pain. Please. It wouldn’t take anything away from the spouse, but it would give the respect to the parents that they deserve and give them a tiny bit of happiness in a life without their child.

Lori Longfritz is the New York Times best-selling co-author of “Alone at Dawn.” Her brother, Master Sgt. John Chapman, was an Air Force combat controller KIA in Afghanistan in March 2002 and her husband was John’s first sergeant (now retired), so patriotism runs deep in her veins. Lori’s personal experiences with the Air Force have given her a unique perspective regarding institutional norms within the military and her desire is to bring about change in some areas, especially in those involving Gold Star parents and siblings. Lori is currently completing a biography about her brother so readers will know the boy who grew into an American hero. She has two children and two grandchildren, and leads a quiet life in Wyoming.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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