Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Revocation of Marines' Medals Adds Insult to Injuries

The following article is reprinted from the Kansas City Star website:

ATCHISON, Kan. (Feb. 9) - Nearly two years ago, Marine Cpl. Travis Eichelberger watched as his commandant pinned a Purple Heart to his hospital gown at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

Now the same commandant, Gen. William Nyland, is revoking that medal and removing it from Eichelberger's record because he was run over by a tank driven by an American.

Eichelberger, 22, of Atchison, is one of 11 Marines who have received "letters of error" within the past two months telling them that they were given their medals by mistake.

Nyland said it was necessary to revoke Eichelberger's medal because his injuries weren't "caused directly or indirectly by enemy action."

"I'm disappointed," Eichelberger said Tuesday. "I don't understand how a mistake like that could happen."

Eichelberger was sleeping in a shallow foxhole in the sand of Iraq when he was run over by a 67-ton Abrams tank.

It was mid-March 2003 after he and the rest of the 200 Marines in his unit crossed into Iraq from Kuwait on their way to Baghdad.

"I laid there and saw my pants and other clothes twisted (around my body)," Eichelberger told The Topeka Capital-Journal in March 2004. "I didn't feel severe pain. I was in shock. I was paralyzed from the chest down and started dragging myself on my hands."

He suffered a crushed pelvis, shredded internal organs and legs that were swollen to twice their normal size.

After being dismissed from the hospital, he came home to a hero's welcome, complete with an outpouring of support from his community and extensive media coverage.

But now that his medal has been revoked, he said, he feels kind of awkward.

"I got injured, my hometown rallied behind me and helped out my family," he said. "To have (the Purple Heart) taken away, it makes you feel like you're a liar."

Charles Mugno, head of the Marine Corps Awards Branch, said the 11 injured Marines were among the first wave of casualties to return from Iraq and there was a rush to honor them.

Mugno said the Purple Heart errors were caused by confusion over the circumstances of how the Marines were injured, adding that there's a difference between being wounded in a combat zone and being wounded by hostile action.

Officials said they had to revoke the medals after they realized the mistake.

"The most important point is that the revocation was the right thing to do in order to maintain the sanctity and the specialness of the award," Marine spokesman Lt. Col. T.V. Johnson said. "You don't want to be identified as someone wearing their medals incorrectly, or worse, wearing something you don't deserve."

Eichelberger said, "If I really don't deserve it, I don't want it. But the problem is that they (military commanders) decided to give them to us. ... Get it right next time."

Eichelberger will receive a medical discharge from the Marines later this month. While he doesn't want people to think he's complaining about losing his medal, he doesn't want any other soldiers to be put in a position of explaining why they've been stripped of a military honor.

"What am I supposed to tell my town?" he said.

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