The Medal of Honor was created in 1861, based on separate bills to promote the efficiency of the Army and Navy, and bestowed on those who "distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action."
The bills were signed by President Lincoln, and the medals were designed to celebrate heroes of the Civil War, but the award survived and gained prominence after the conflict, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
Since 1863, it has been awarded the bravest soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen, according to the U.S. Army's website. In the name of Congress, the president awards each medal.
Awarding the actual medal can take years. What is the process of being granted the Medal of Honor?
Fewer than 100 living recipients are among us today.
Three things you need to know today.
Clemency sought: The NAACP and Amnesty International on Thursday will deliver petitions with thousands of signatures seeking clemency for convicted killer Troy Davis to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles.
Davis, 42, is set to be executed on September 21 for the murder an off-duty Savannah police officer more than two decades ago.
Since Davis' conviction in 1991, seven of the nine witnesses against him have recanted their testimony. No physical evidence was presented linking Davis to the killing of the policeman.
The rights groups contend there is too much doubt about Davis' conviction to let the execution proceed.
"Troy Davis could very well be innocent," Amnesty International says on its website.
Medal of Honor: Dakota Meyer will receive the Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama at the White House on Thursday, becoming the first living Marine to get the medal for actions in Afghanistan or Iraq.
Meyer repeatedly ran through enemy fire to recover the bodies of fellow American troops during a firefight in Afghanistan's Kunar province in 2009.
Meyer ultimately saved the lives of 13 U.S. Marines and soldiers, and 23 Afghan soldiers, according to the Medal of Honor account on the Marine website. He also is credited with killing at least eight Taliban insurgents.
Swearing in: The two newest members of Congress, Republicans Mark Amodei of Nevada and Bob Turner of New York, will be sworn in on Thursday, two days after they won special elections in Nevada and New York respectively.
Amodei's election was expected. Republicans have represented Nevada's 2nd congressional district - which covers almost the entire state, except the southern tip and the Las Vegas metropolitan area - since it was created in 1983.
But Turner, a former cable TV executive, defeated Democratic state assemblyman David Weprin 54% to 46% in New York's 9th congressional district, giving the GOP control in a district where Democrats have a 3-to-1 voter advantage.
President Barack Obama next month will present the Medal of Honor to the first living Marine to receive the recognition for actions in Afghanistan or Iraq, the White House announced Friday.
Dakota Meyer was in Afghanistan's Kunar province in September 2009 when he repeatedly ran through enemy fire to recover the bodies of fellow American troops.
He will be honored during a White House ceremony September 15.
Meyer will be the third living Medal of Honor recipient from service in the current war theaters.
A Marine who braved enemy fire alone to retrieve the bodies of his fallen comrades will be awarded the Medal of Honor, Marine Corps Times reports.
Dakota Meyer, who now lives in Austin, Texas, will be the first living Marine to receive the nation's highest military honor since the Vietnam War. Two living Army soldiers, Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry and Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, have received the medal in the past year.
Meyer will be recognized for his actions on September 8, 2009, in Ganjgal, a remote Afghan village near the border with Pakistan. As his unit of 13 U.S. service members came under attack by a force of 50 heavily-armed insurgents, Meyer, a corporal at the time, repeatedly ran through enemy fire to recover the bodies of fellow American troops.
In his last full day on the job, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian honor. President Obama gave Gates the medal during a tribute in front of the Pentagon.
"I'm deeply honored and moved by your presentation of this award," Gates said. "It was a big surprise. But we should have known. ... You're pretty good at this covert ops stuff."
Gates' career has spanned four decades of public service, throughout the administrations of eight presidents. He is being succeeded by former CIA Director Leon Panetta.
Considered the ultimate Washington insider, Gates, himself a former CIA chief, replaced Donald Rumsfeld in 2006. Gates served as secretary of defense in the administrations of both George W. Bush and Obama.
On Thursday, Gates described the transition between the Bush and Obama teams as "a first of its kind" during a war in over 40 years.
Obama called Gates "one of the nation's finest public servants," noting Gates' "profound sense of duty" that led him to continue serving in the Obama administration despite his desire to return to civilian life.
Obama said Gates "challenged conventional wisdom" to reduce wasteful military spending and save "hundreds of billions."
"Today we see the lifesaving difference he made," Obama said.
An Army Ranger who lost his right hand while tossing an enemy grenade away from fellow soldiers in Afghanistan will be awarded the Medal of Honor, the U.S. Army announced this week.
Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Arthur Petry will be the second living recipient of the Medal of Honor from the Iraq and Afghan wars, according to the military. President Barack Obama will present the award to Petry on July 12.
"It's very humbling to know that the guys thought that much of me and my actions that day, to nominate me for that," Petry said, according to an Army News Service report.
Petry is being awarded the medal for actions on May 26, 2008, in Paktia, Afghanistan.
As the nation prepared to celebrate Memorial Day by relaxing with family and friends, some U.S. soldiers partook in a far more somber ritual: Visiting the gravesites of fallen comrades.
Staff Sgt. Bradley Falls, an Afghanistan veteran, said he deemed it an honor to come to Virginia's Arlington National Cemetery and plant fresh, crisp flags in the burial plots of soldiers past.
“It’s especially an honor for us when you’ve been on the other side of it and now you can come here and you can bring honor to their final resting place,” Falls said.
“We all know somebody buried here personally,” he said as he leaned down and jabbed a small flag into the soil.
Sgt. Cherry Smith, an Iraq veteran, said she has a greater appreciation for the sacrifice of men and women in uniform.
“Now that I’ve actually served and came from Iraq, (I realize) they paid the way, so without them we wouldn’t be here,” she said.
But the stoic remembrances were not just left to service members. Civilians also have found ways to memorialize U.S. soldiers killed in combat.
Numerous cities around the nation planned Memorial Day observances to honor the U.S. armed forces.
High school student Ricky Gilleland, 17, runs a website that serves as a virtual database for soldiers killed in the line of duty.
Looking at his website, Preserveandhonor.com, Ricky said he is struck by how young the men and women were who have given their lives for their country.
“It’s sad because I come here and look at the birth dates and death dates and I think, ‘These are kids not much older than me,'" he said.
The site has received more than 1 million hits since its October launch.
Ricky said his intent is to provide families with a way, however small, to commune with their dead loved ones and appreciate their sacrifice.
“I hope that they can go on (the website) and feel a little bit of comfort in knowing that they’re not just a number of casualties, or anything like that, they’re actual people.”
Also, the nation's military leaders expressed admiration for soldiers serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and bases around the world.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates choked up recently when talking about the responsibility of sending Americans off to two wars.
"I've done my best to care for them as though they were my own sons and daughters," Gates said when he was at the White House last month. "They are the best America has to offer ... And I will miss them deeply."
"Virtually every day since taking this post, I've written condolence letters to the families of the fallen," Gates said in a videotaped Memorial Day message. "I will always keep all of you in my heart and in my prayers as long as I live - as should all Americans."
Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, recalled the loss of his buddies while he served in Vietnam.
He said his Memorial Day will be spent at home in El Paso, Texas, visiting the Fort Bliss National Cemetery and the grave of his father-in-law, who served in World War II and Korea.
"The experience of Vietnam, at least for me, is not just reserved for Memorial Day," Reyes said from his Washington office. "I think back to the buddies I lost in Vietnam."
"War is not like it is in the movies ... there is no music. There is constant fear, body parts, death."
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Two U.S. soldiers will receive posthumous Medals of Honor for their actions during the Korean War, the White House announced Wednesday.
Relatives of Pfc. Anthony T. Kaho’ohanohano and Pfc. Henry Svehla will receive the medals from President Barack Obama at a White House ceremony on May 2.
A 25-year-old U.S. Army staff sergeant from Iowa on Tuesday became the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor from the war in Afghanistan.
President Obama awarded the nation's highest medal of valor to Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta - the kind of soldier who leaves you "just absolutely convinced this is what America's all about," Obama said at the White House award ceremony. "It just makes you proud."
Giunta was a specialist serving with the Airborne 503rd Infantry Regiment on his second tour of duty in Afghanistan when his unit was attacked on the night of October 25, 2007. According to Defense Department documents, Giunta and his fellow soldiers were walking back to base along the top of a mountain ridge when the enemy attacked from their front and their left. Taliban fighters barraged the Americans with AK-47s, rocket propelled grenades and Soviet-era large machine guns.
President Obama will award the Medal of Honor to U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert J. Miller for "conspicuous gallantry" and "heroic actions" in Afghanistan in January 2008, the White House announced Thursday.
Miller will receive the rare honor posthumously for displaying "immeasurable courage and uncommon valor - eventually sacrificing his own life to save the lives of his teammates and 15 Afghanistan National Army soldiers," according to a White House statement.
Miller's mother and father will join the Obama at the White House on October 6 "to commemorate their son's selfless service and sacrifice," the White House said.
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