Honor for sale?

By Lisa Burgess, Stars and Stripes
European edition, Tuesday, November 11, 2003

ARLINGTON, Va. — In the world of military medals, the Medal of Honor doesn’t stand out in appearance. It’s just a length of light blue, white-starred grosgrain ribbon holding a chunk of inexpensive enameled metal alloy, not pure gold, as some people believe.

But for individuals who have served in the U.S. military, few sights can stop them in their tracks like the sight of the Medal of Honor.

“It’s one of the cheapest manufactured medals” awarded by the U.S. government, Doug Sterner, founder of the “Hall Of Heroes” Web site, said in a Monday telephone interview. “But what it stands for is priceless.”

But for some people, honor does, in fact have a price: Just over $2,200, to judge by the latest sale of a Medal of Honor on the Internet auction site eBay last Friday.

Such sales are illegal under federal law, and punishable by fines of up to $100,000 and a year in jail.

But that doesn’t stop buyers, who range from collectors of military memorabilia “to individuals who use the Medal of Honor for personal profit,” Victoria Leslie, director of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, said in a Friday telephone interview.

The exclusiveness of the medal would seem to limit its underground availability — only 3,459 Medals of Honor have been officially awarded since the medal’s inception in 1863.

True, there are very few stolen medals that have not been recovered, according to FBI agent Tom Cottone, whose Newark, N.J., office is in charge of investigating illegal military medal sales and people who fraudulently represent themselves as Medal of Honor recipients.

“There are tons of both, unfortunately,” Cottone said in a Monday telephone interview.

The black market for the Medal of Honor is bigger than most people suspect, however, thanks to a Long Island, N.Y., company called H.L.I. Lordship Industries.

Lordship was the U.S. government’s only authorized manufacturer of the Medal of Honor when its officials began secretly producing hundreds of unauthorized medals and selling them “out the back door,” according to Cottone, who broke the case.

In 1996, Lordship officials subsequently pleaded guilty in federal court to illegally manufacturing and selling at least 300 Medals of Honor between 1991 and 1994.

But a statute of limitations kept the FBI from prosecuting Lordship for selling unauthorized medals before 1991, Cottone said.

FBI agents suspect that “there are far in excess of 300” medals on the black market, Cottone said.

Sterner, who “works hand in hand” with Cottone to get the unauthorized medals off the street, estimated that as many as 900 could be on the black market.

Cottone was monitoring Friday’s eBay sale of a Medal of Honor, which was offered by “inyrfc,” a London-based seller who said in the site description that his was one of the Lordship medals.

“This medal would be illegal to sell in the USA and as such are almost impossible to find for sale!!” the bidder wrote in his description.

Sixteen separate bidders battled one another for the medal, which was eventually won by “dougsjourney,” who paid more than $2,200.

Neither the seller nor the buyer responded to Stripes’ e-mailed requests for an interview.

It’s doubtful that the buyer of Friday’s medal will ever see it, Cottone said.

“If you buy [a Medal of Honor], and we find out you bought it and you’re in the United States, you stand a good chance of losing [the medal], and possibly being fined,” Cottone said.

“It’s a law I don’t mind prosecuting, let me put it that way,” said Cottone.

For more information on the Medal of Honor and its recipients, or to report the possession of an unauthorized medal, go to www.cmohs.org.

Other sites with extensive information on the medal and its recipients include www.homeofheros.com; and www.mishalov.com/Living_MoH_Recipients.html.

Above and beyond

The Medal of Honor is the highest distinction that the United States of America can bestow upon a U.S. servicemember. The medal is presented by the president, in the name of Congress, and is earned by a deed of personal bravery and self-sacrifice “above and beyond the call of duty.”

Some facts about the medal:

• The first Medal of Honor was issued in 1863.
• To date, 3,459 Medals of Honor have been awarded.
• There are three different designs for the medal: one each for the Army, Air Force and Sea Services (Coast Guard, Marines, Navy).
• The Medal of Honor was the only medal awarded during the Civil War.
• Only one woman has been awarded the medal: Dr. Mary Walker, a contract surgeon who served during the Civil War.
• New York has had 619 Medal of Honor recipients, the most of any state. (Normally, the Medal of Honor is attributed to the state in which the recipient entered the service).
• It is the only United States military award that is worn from a ribbon hung around the neck.
• There are more than 700 foreign-born Medal of Honor recipients.
• There are 19 men who have been awarded two Medals of Honor.
• Five sets of brothers have received the medal.
• Theodore Roosevelt is the only U.S. president to receive the Medal of Honor.
• The youngest person ever to receive the Medal of Honor was probably William Johnson, who earned the medal during the Civil War just prior to his 12th birthday and received his award six weeks after his 13th. The oldest recipient was probably Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who was 62 when he earned the medal.
• The most recent conflict for which the medal was awarded was Somalia, where Delta soldiers Sgt. 1st Class Randall Shughart and Master Sgt. Gary Gordon were awarded the honor after being killed in action in Mogadishu on Oct. 3, 1993.

— Source: The Congressional Medal of Honor Society