WASHINGTON — When President Barack Obama drapes the Medal of Honor around the neck of Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts on Monday, it will symbolize all of the heroism and sacrifice that occurred in a ferocious battle in Afghanistan. But it will represent something else, too: a dramatic rise in the amount of time it takes for troops to be honored with the nation's highest award for combat valor.
Pitts of Nashua, N.H., will receive the award six years and eight days after holding off an enemy assault on his platoon's hillside observation post in Afghanistan's Nuristan province. He did so even though he was wounded badly enough that a fellow soldier had to put a tourniquet on his leg to control the bleeding, Army officials say.
The amount of time between his actions and his ceremony at the White House will be the second longest for any service member awarded the Medal of Honor for actions after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. It is surpassed only by Army Sgt. Kyle White, who received the medal May 13, more than 6 1/2 years after he braved enemy fire numerous times in a Nov. 7, 2007, battle in Nuristan after he was briefly knocked unconscious by a rocket-propelled grenade blast.
Obama has awarded the Medal of Honor twice as often as his predecessor for actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Still, the prolonged approval process has drawn fire on Capitol Hill, in the military and from experts who track military awards and see a broken system.
"That is bureaucratic ineptness, is all that is," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine. "It's probably armchair generals who are afraid of their own shadows that just don't want to do the right thing. It shouldn't take six years. In fact, I think it's a travesty when these guys don't get their awards when they're still on active duty."
Before President George W. Bush left office early in 2009, he awarded five Medals of Honor for actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, all posthumously to recipients who died from injuries sustained while earning the award. Bush took criticism in the military for not once decorating a living service member with the Medal of Honor, but the medals he did award came relatively quickly — about two years each, or 736 days on average.
Pitts will be the 11th post-Sept. 11 service member to receive the Medal of Honor from Obama. Nine of the awards have gone to living recipients, but those cases have taken an average of nearly four years — 1,443 days — to conclude. The president also has awarded two posthumous awards, which took about three years each.
A White House spokesperson referred questions for this story to the military, saying it was a Defense Department issue.
Pentagon officials said it can be difficult to gather the "incontestable proof" needed for the Medal of Honor. That's especially the case, they said, when there are few witnesses or when the potential recipient and others present have been evacuated from the battlefield after sustaining severe wounds.