If we were to look at the people who have been accorded with this highest military honor, we would think that one had to die first before being deemed as deserving of the award. In reality, this is not the case. There are Medal of Honor recipients who have been able to receive their awards in person, such as retired Navy SEAL Michael Edwin Thornton.
But what, indeed, does it take to earn a Medal of Honor? The criteria have evolved over time. The distinction, after all, has been in existence for more than a hundred years.
In its early days, the criteria for receiving the Medal of Honor were not as strict. Its first recipients were the Union soldiers who hijacked the Confederate locomotive General, with the exception of their raid leader James J. Andrews, who was hanged as a Union spy. In the 19th century, most of its recipients earned the recognition by virtue of actions associated with saving the flag, which was then viewed more as the main means for communication in the battlefield than as a symbol of patriotism.
Civilians were also previously given the Medal of Honor, including Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, a feminist and surgeon who was a civilian volunteer for the Union Army. Although hers was among the awards revoked when Congress revised the eligibility criteria to include only those who were involved in actual combat with the enemy, it was restored posthumously by President Jimmy Carter in 1977. She is the only female recipient of the Medal of Honor.
Prior to the Second World War, the Medal of Honor was awarded for both non-combat and combat bravery. Among the acts of bravery that honorees from this era did were risking their lives to save the lives of others due to a catastrophe, such as an explosion or a fire. Richard Byrd and Floyd Bennett were given Medals of Honor for their efforts in exploring the North Pole.
After World War II, the criteria have been restricted to members of the US Armed Forces who exhibited exceptional acts of bravery beyond the call of duty while engaged in action against an enemy. Thus began the trend that the Medal of Honor is usually earned posthumously. The common ground that Medal of Honor recipients after the Second World War share is risking their lives to save comrades or civilians or both, sometimes using their bodies as a human shield, knowing fully well the consequences of their actions.
Thus far, there have been a total of 3,465 Medals of Honor awarded; 746 of those went to members of the Navy, including Navy SEALs Michael Murphy and Michael Monsoor.