WASHINGTON — The Navy will upgrade medals for four Marines and one sailor at a ceremony scheduled for Friday following a yearlong review that determined their heroism had not been properly acknowledged.
The troops, one of whom remains on active duty, were among more than 1,000 service members who had earned the nation’s most prestigious honors for bravery since the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Concern that standards for valor had changed over the more than 15 years of fighting prompted the Pentagon last year to determine whether they were entitled to higher honors.
The citation for Marine Sgt. Michael Mendoza’s Navy Cross dates to 2004 when insurgents attacked his platoon in Iraq’s restive Anbar province. It cites Mendoza’s “complete disregard for his own personal safety” when he rushed to the aid of fallen comrades.
Last month, USA TODAY reported that the review had prompted Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to recommend two service members for the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for military valor. That honor requires approval from the Defense secretary and the White House, meaning that the medals, if approved, would likely be among the first awarded by President-elect Donald Trump.
Mabus, however, has the authority to upgrade medals to the level of Navy Cross and Silver Star, commendations just below the Medal of Honor.
"It is appropriate that today we recognize these individuals for their outstanding actions in the face of incredible danger," Mabus said in a statement. "It is also appropriate, that by honoring these five men, we honor the rest of you who fought beside them, and those who are still in the fight.”
The services, particularly the Navy, had resisted the review, arguing in documents that doing so undermined the authority of the commanders who had made the initial decision about the award. Mabus, in a memo, registered concern that the review could “have long-term detrimental impact on our service culture and our awards program.”
Despite that concern, the Navy scoured its records and found sailors and Marines like Mendoza and determined some upgrades were necessary.
On April 7, 2014, insurgents ambushed Mendoza’s patrol, disabling his vehicle with a rocket-propelled grenade, according to the citation. He organized a counterattack with five Marines, charging across “an open field, up a 10-foot berm and across a deep and muddy canal to firing positions within hand-grenade range of the enemy.”
The counterattack killed 10 insurgents and forced others to flee. Mendoza continued the assault when he saw fellow troops wounded and in peril. After his commander was cut down by an insurgent concealed in a trench, Mendoza killed the fighter.
Under rocket and machine-gun fire, Mendoza then knelt in the open next to his commander until another Marine could pull the officer into a shallow ditch and performed first aid. Mendoza continued to return fire until an armored vehicle arrived to evacuate the officer.
For his “extraordinary heroism,” Mendoza will see the Silver Star he had been awarded upgraded to the Navy Cross by Mabus at the ceremony.
In addition, four troops who have since left their services will receive Silver Star medals, upgrades from their previous commendations. Three are Marines, Sgt. Nicholas Brandau, Master Sgt. Steven Davis and Lance Cpl. Edward Huth. The fourth is a sailor, Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Atkinson.
The ceremony is schedule for 8 a.m. Friday at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in North Carolina.