Valor Friday

| January 15, 2021

As we explore the most decorated soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines of the post-Vietnam era, the lists become much shorter. There are quite a few people who score the same or very close to each other. For example, most of the Army Medal of Honor recipients in the War on Terror earned the MoH, the Purple Heart, and a Bronze Star Medal. Even with that there are some standouts.

Post-Vietnam conflicts include Grenada, Panama, the Gulf War, and Somalia. The Army awarded no Medals of Honor or Distinguished Service Crosses until Somalia, when two men were honored with the nation’s highest award.

Randy Shugart (L) and Gary Gordon (R)

During the Battle of Mogadishu, what became the basis for the book and later movie Black Hawk Down, Delta Force operators Master Sergeant Gary Gordon and Sergeant First Class Randy Shugart (both of the US Army) were serving as snipers as overwatch aboard Black Hawk Helicopters. After the first helicopter crashed, Gordon requested permission to be inserted at the crash site to defend the injured soldiers. Initially denied, his persistence won out. He and Shugart were inserted, fought their way to the crash site, extricated the crew of the crashed chopper, organized a defensive perimeter, and directed the fighting defense as they were swarmed by dozens upon dozens of unfriendly, armed forces. They led the defense until they both died from enemy fire. Both men were posthumously awarded Medals of Honor and Purple Hearts. Gordon edges out Shugart in the category of personal, non-combat awards. MSG Gordon is thus the most decorated Army soldier of the post-Vietnam era.

William Andrews

The Air Force’s most decorated man of the era is Colonel William Andrews. As a captain during the Gulf War, Andrews was flying an F-16 over Iraq when he was shot down. Despite taking fire from the ground, he was able to call out descriptions of the area as he was coming down. Breaking his leg when he touched down, he continued to direct his wingmen, using his position on the ground to give them early warning of enemy anti-aircraft missile launches. He’d be captured by Iraqi forces and held as a prisoner for nearly a week. He earned the Air Force Cross for his heroics that day.

There were no Medals of Honor awarded to any sailors or Marines between Vietnam and the War on Terror. During this time period there were some awards of the Navy Cross though, with those men becoming the most decorated of the era.

The most decorated Marine of the time was Captain Jeb Seagle. Captain Seagle was a Cobra helicopter pilot. Forced down by enemy fire during Operation Urgent Fury, the invasion of Grenada. Once on the ground he got himself out of the crippled aircraft, but his co-pilot was unable to extricate himself and was severely wounded. The aircraft engulfed in flames, Seagle remained with the aircraft and with no regard for his own safety pulled out the injured Marine. Unwilling to leave his comrade behind, he dressed the man’s wounds and, with unexpended ordnance cooking off around them realized they would soon be overrun by enemy forces, Seagle elected to forego his own escape. Seagle created a distraction and used himself as a target for the enemy to draw them away from his injured co-pilot. He was captured soon after and executed with two bullets to the back of his skull. He was awarded the Navy Cross for his heroism.

Donald McFaul

The most decorated sailor is Chief Engineman (SEAL) Donald McFaul. McFaul was with SEAL Team Four during Operation Just Cause, the Invasion of Panama. It was there at Paitilla Airfield that the SEAL platoon was to deny Noriega the use of the resource. After insertion by rubber boat the team encountered heavy enemy resistance. McFaul was in a position of relative safety when he realized most of the first squad were wounded and in the open about 25 yards away. Without regard for his own safety, McFaul ran out into the enemy’s kill zone. Under constant, direct enemy fire he grabbed a wounded sailor and was carrying the man back to safety when he was mortally wounded himself. He received the Navy Cross posthumously. He was only one of two Navy men to receive the honor between Vietnam and the War on Terror.

The more recent conflicts, in Afghanistan since 2001, Iraq since 2003, and Syria since 2014 have resulted in many more candidates for most decorated. Most all of these men come from the special operations community. I’ll include all of these conflicts post-9/11 as the War on Terror.

Jason Myers

The most decorated Army officer (and overall most decorated soldier) of War on Terror is Chief Warrant Officer Three Jason Myers. He’s the only man since Vietnam to have received two Distinguished Service Crosses. Nobody has received more than a single service cross from any branch since Vietnam. Myers earned both awards in Afghanistan in incidents a year and a half apart. On both occasions Chief Myers was working with host nation forces when they came under heavy attack. Myers repeatedly and selflessly exposed himself to enemy fire (being wounded on both days).

Thomas Payne

The most decorated Army enlisted soldier of the War on Terror is Sergeant Major Thomas Payne. He recently received the Medal of Honor for actions in Iraq in rescuing 75 hostages ISIS insurgents. A Delta Force operator, Payne has 17 combat deployments in support of the War on Terror, including all three hotspots listed above. His other awards include four Bronze Star Medals, a Purple Heart, and Joint Service and Army Commendation Medals w/ “V”.e

The Air Force’s most decorated man is actually a close tie. Between Master Sergeant Zachary Rhyner and Technical Sergeant Robert Gutierrez. Both men are combat controllers, part of Air Force Special Tactics.

Zachary Rhyner (right)

Rhyner received the Air Force Cross (the first living combat controller recipient) for action in Afghanistan. As a special tactics airman, he’s deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan a total of six times. During one of those Afghan deployments his special forces team was ambushed by a well coordinated enemy. Exposing himself to heavy enemy fire, he provided covering fire with his personal weapon while the wounded were moved to safety. He then coordinated 50 attack runs from eight Air Force planes and four Army attack helicopters. Fighting the enemy from an exposed position he wielded his M4 rifle while calling in repeated airstrikes at danger close distances of less than 100 meters of his own position. Three Purple Hearts and Air Force Commendation Medals w/ “V” round out his combat awards.

Robert Gutierrez

Gutierrez also received an Air Force Cross for action in Afghanistan. His team was ambushed. Despite being shot in the chest, he continued brigning the fight to the enemy, calling in danger close airstrikes from Air Force A-10 aircraft. He too has several deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan to his credit. He holds three Bronze Star Medals (at least one w/ “V”) and a Purple Heart. He edges out Rhyner by one point, but I’ll call it a draw.

The Navy’s most decorated top two candidates are both Navy SEALs and both have received the Medal of Honor for actions in Afghanistan.

Britt Slabinski

Master Chief Special Warfare Operator Britt Slabinski received his Medal of Honor for the Battle of Robert’s Ridge early in the Afghan War. In that battle, Slabinski led a team of SEALs and Air Force Special Tactics airmen to a mountain top. Inserting by helicopter in the pre-dawn hours, the chopper was undertaken by heavy enemy fire, as the bird went down one man was ejected, before crashing in the valley below. After crashing, Slabinski rallied his remaining men and led an assault up the mountain, facing fierce opposition along the way. In addition to the Medal of Honor he earned five Bronze Star Medals w/ “V” and a Navy and Marine Corps Medal (the highest award for non-combat gallantry) over the course of a 25 year career that saw 15 combat deployments.

Edward Byers

Coming in just a few points ahead of the Master Chief Slabinski is fellow SEAL Command Master Chief Petty Officer Edward Byers. In 2014 in Afghanistan, then-Chief Byers was part of a hostage rescue team. Encountering heavy enemy resistance at the stronghold, Byers fearless engaged several of the enemy in close quarters combat inside a residence to include hand-to-hand fighting. Upon finding the American hostage, Byers leapt atop the man and used his own body to shield the hostage from the heavy volume of enemy and friendly fire. Even while covering the hostage with his body, Byers took an enemy combatant on in hand-to-hand combat, immobilizing him until a teammate could eliminate the threat. Byers also earned four Bronze Star Medals w/ “V”, three Purple Hearts, and a Joint Service Commendation and Navy Commendation Medal, both with “V”. He retired in 2019 after 21 years where he served 11 overseas deployments including nine combat deployments.

Likewise, the US Marine Corps has two men who can place convincing claims on most decorated. For combat awards, both Sergeant Major Bradley Kasal and Sergeant Dakota Meyer come within a point of each other. If you factor in non-combat awards, Kasal would take the lead.

Dakota Meyer

Dakota Meyer was the first living Marine in 38 years to receive the Medal of Honor when he got the award in 2011 from actions in Afghanistan in 2009. Meyer was a scout sniper manning a post outside a village while the rest of his team and host nation forces moved into the village for a meeting. When the team was ambushed and cut off, Meyer grabbed a truck and driver and manned the exposed machine gun as they repeatedly drove through the ambush area in search of survivors. Finding that four men were missing, he went out on foot and found them dead and stripped. A Taliban fighter was trying to take the bodies when Meyer found him. The enemy tackled Meyer and they fought on the ground. Meyer eventually beat the man to death with a rock.

Bradley Kasal

Coming in one point higher is Bradley Kasal. Kasal is a career Marine, retiring after 34 years of service. Originally serving in the Gulf War, he was a first sergeant during the Iraq War where he’d earn the Navy Cross. Hearing gunfire from a house and seeing Marines pouring out of a building, Kasal acted decisively in attacking the structure when he found out there were Marines trapped inside. Entering the structure he engaged the enemy and saw a wounded Marine. While moving to rescue him, he and a fellow Marine were attacked by insurgents in an elevated position. Both Marines were shot in the legs immobilizing them. When grenades came raining down on their position Kasal rolled bodily on top of the young private first class under his command and shield the younger Marine from dozens of bomb fragments. In addition to scores of shrapnel wounds, Kasal would be shot seven times by 7.62mm rifle fire, taking out four inches of his femur and costing him 60% of his blood, but he’d continue to fight. Resorting to using his Ka-Bar and sidearm, he refused evacuation until the other men had been attended to. Though immobilized, he shouted encouragement to the other Marines as they continued to clear the building. A Vanity Fair photographer would capture the battered first sergeant as he was finally being evacuated by his men. In addition to the Navy Cross he has two Purple Hearts and a Navy Commendation Medal w/ “V”.

Famous photo of Kasal being pulled out of the “hell house”, pistol in one hand and Ka-bar in the other (Photo by Lucian Read)

In the post-Vietnam world, the most decorated man is Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jason Myers. He’s still on active duty too, so he might continue to rack up awards.

So as we conclude this series, who is the “most decorated?” Major General Patrick Brady comes in as the top dog. He scores 239 points for his combat awards alone. Colonel David Hackworth is a close second with 236 points, which is ahead of the third place finisher, Colonel Ralph Parr at 229 points. For comparison’s sake, Major Thomas McGuire has 155 points as the most decorated of WWII and Vice Admiral Joel Thomas Boone has 100 points as the most decorated of WWI.

We only looked at combat awards for this series, since that’s usually the frame of reference for most decorated. If I add in scores for non-combat awards, the most decorated in history are still, in order, Brady, Hackworth, and Parr. There is a distinct shift, post-Vietnam, in awards shifting towards non-combat. Senior officers, such as General Martin Dempsey (US Army), who has two Bronze Star Medals for combat service (totaling 10 points) and 168 points in non-combat awards.

To compare Dempsey, Colonel Robert Howard, a US Army Green Beret from Vietnam-times has a total of 181 points. Colonel Howard received the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, four Bronze Star Medals, and a near-record eight Purple Hearts. Howard has 110 points of combat awards and 71 non-combat.

Going back a generation, General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, who earned many valor awards in WWI, more in WWII, and even some for Korea, has a score of 138 combat points. This includes the Medal of Honor, three Distinguished Service Crosses, seven Silver Stars, a Distinguished Flying Cross, a Bronze Star Medal w/ “V”, and two Purple Hearts. He adds to that 45 points from non-combat decorations.

On the topic of MacArthur, polarizing figure in not just Army history but American history, if we are to factor in foreign awards (which are hard to quantify directly with American awards), he is likely by far the most decorated American of all time. The number of honors he received (through both World Wars and the Korean War) from foreign governments is lengthy. Most of these awards are among each respective country’s highest honors. For example, from the UK he was made a Knight Grand Cross in the Order of the Bath (the highest grade of one of their highest orders) and the French Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor (the topmost grade of the country’s highest honor). These would easily rate as comparable to a Distinguished Service Medal (9 points in this here scheme), bringing MacArthur’s total American and foreign decorations to a total of near 450 points, well ahead of anyone else.

Category: Air Force, Air Force Cross, Army, Distinguished Service Cross, Marines, Medal of Honor, Navy, Navy Cross, Valor

Comments (7)

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  1. ninja says:

    Wow, Mason….

    What a FANTASTIC post.

    Thank You so much for sharing this.

    Hope those individuals who choose to embellish their military service with folks who never serve, whether it be by Book of Face, newspaper articles, word of mouth, etc. read your post thoroughly today and be ashamed of their exagerrated “Look At Me!” self.

    Our Unsong Heroes and An Inspiration to All.

    Never Forget.

    👍👍👍

  2. KoB says:

    A Hearty Bravo Zulu and Battalion Gun Salute for these Heroes. Outstanding write up and excellent Series you have here Mason. It is muchly appreciated.

    Ready on the right…Ready on the left…The Gun Line is Ready…COMMENCE FIRING!

  3. UpNorth says:

    Thank you, Mason.
    Gen. Patton said it as well as anyone, “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived”.

  4. Dustoff says:

    I had the honor of serving with Mike Durant in Korea, one of the pilots that Gordon and Shugart were trying to save. In subsequent interviews I’ve seen with Durant, he had nothing but high praise for these heroes. We always ask, “where do we find such men?”

  5. Jay says:

    I’ve enjoyed reading these over the past few weeks. Thanks for taking the time to put these together.

  6. AW1Ed says:

    Nicely done once again, Mason.

  7. RLS says:

    Hello, I enjoyed reading your article. I also have an interest in highly decorated soldiers, so I am always glad to see thoughtful research projects like this one. However, I think there is a flaw in your system. It concerns counting Air Medals. This will always skew results if a person has enough of them. You say Patrick Brady is the most decorated, but anyone with 80 Air Medals or more will have more points. William J. Maddox Jr has 4SS, 8DFC, 4BS, 4PH and 127 Air Medals. A Vietnam pilot named Leonard Demaray earned 89 Air Medals, plus additional combat awards. Another man named Armit Tilgner was awarded 4BS and 135 Air Medals for Vietnam. In a system where you count all these AMs, Mr. Tilgner would be considered more decorated than Douglas MacArthur, even though his highest combat award was the Bronze Star. It seems a little misleading and can potentially turn valor award precedence upside down. Just wanted to make sure you were aware of this issue.