It is the most revered of military commendations but also one of the least understood. Why the Medal of Honor is awarded to one, and not another, largely remains a mystery.
It starts with a recommendation from those who witnessed the bravery. After that, "it disappears into the fog of bureaucracy," says Medal of Honor recipient and former U.S. senator Bob Kerrey in the top-notch documentary "Medal of Honor," which both celebrates and demystifies the blue ribbon and small hunk of metal. The program premieres tonight on PBS stations.
With interviews and vintage images, producer-director Roger Sherman traces the history of the medal from its creation during the Civil War through the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The result renders honors where they are due without glossing over some dark spots in the medal's history: the profligate distribution in the Civil War and the refusal to acknowledge the bravery of black and Asian American troops during World War II -- a miscarriage corrected only decades later.
There are intriguing numbers: 3,473 Medals of Honor have been awarded; 102 recipients are still living. In World War II, 57% of the medals were awarded posthumously; of the five awarded for Iraq and Afghanistan, all were posthumous.
Embedded in "Medal" are gem-like mini-profiles, among them Air Force pilot George "Bud" Day, who received the medal for his defiance as a prisoner of war during Vietnam; Marine legend Smedley Butler, who received the medal twice and later became a pacifist; and Holocaust survivor Tibor Rubin, who came to the U.S., joined the Army and served in Korea.
Charles Liteky, an Army chaplain, received the medal for braving enemy fire in Vietnam to rescue soldiers and give others their last rites. In 1986, he became the first recipient to turn back the medal -- in protest of U.S. policies in Central America.
The recipients generally eschew the title of hero. Most will admit to the fear that is a constant factor of combat.
"I think anger chases fear away," said John Finn, a sailor who received the medal for firing at the Japanese planes on Dec. 7, 1941.
"Fear can save your life, but you have to keep it from controlling you," says Drew Dix, a Medal of Honor recipient from Vietnam.
Patriotism plays only a small role in why a soldier, Marine, sailor or airman risks his life above and beyond the call of duty, said Dix, who served in the Army Special Forces.
"You're not doing it for your country. You're doing it for the guy on the right and the guy on the left," he said.
'Medal of Honor'
When: 9 tonight
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)