Navy Secretary Violates Due Process in Valor Award for Deserving Vietnam Hero 

Sergeant Josef Burghardt lay motionless on the ground at a pagoda in Hue City, Vietnam. It was the 1968 Tet Offensive, and the Marine was on his second tour in Nam, assigned to Alpha Company. Fewer than 100 Marines were dispatched from Phu Bai on January 31, 1968, and awaiting them were 8,000 North Vietnam Army regulars. The Battle of Hue was the longest continuous battle, and one of the most pivotal conflicts, of the Vietnam War. Half of Burghardt’s Marine company was dead or wounded by the time they reached Hue. 

Sergeant Burghardt survived but sustained a neck wound and was medevaced from the Hue City Stadium to the U.S.S. Repose. He would remain a quadriplegic for the rest of his life and die from complications of bladder and colon cancer on December 18, 2018, also relating to his service in Vietnam. Sgt. Burghardt received a Bronze Star with Combat V for heroic actions he performed in the heat of that fateful battle on February 8, 1968. 

Fifty-three years later, Medal of Honor recipient Sergeant Major John Canley submitted a valor award packet which included a recommended upgrade from Burghardt’s Bronze Star to a Silver Star—the third-highest combat award the United States bestows for valorous conduct—based on additional eyewitness statements of valor which occurred on February 6, 9, and 21 of 1968 during the intense peril of the urban and hyperviolent Battle of Hue. But the Secretary of the Navy instead determined that Burghardt deserved no valor award at all. 

U.S. military awards are important. They get to the heart of what service above self means. They highlight conduct that transcends time and gives deep meaning to the phrase “freedom is not free.”

The valor award system for the Department of the Navy is complex and contentious, since judging valor is subjective. Appeals are common, and Representative Julia Brownley (D-Calif.), submitted an appeal. She included Department of Defense documents which substantiated errors and confusion by the valor boards. 

What happened next should anger and alarm you. Most veterans as well as active duty service members are not aware that Sgt. Burghardt, or anyone else in a similar position, could not appeal back to the deciding board, even if mistakes were made by the Secretary of the Navy’s office. End of story. 

The Marine Corps offered the Navy Board of Correction, which can take years and will eventually be decided by individuals who are under the Secretary of Navy’s umbrella, who made the original decision. Fat chance of success. The unspoken strategy of the Department of Defense is to delay, obstruct, and await the death or surrender of the veterans or their families. And if you don’t believe this happens, we give you Paris Davis (Vietnam) or Doris Miller (World War II)

The Marine Corps’ response never addressed its own documents which demonstrated confusion between the Corps and the Secretary of the Navy’s office. One would assume that any suspected errors could be brought to the attention of officials, and they would either admit their error or justify their original decision. 

In fact, U.S. Code 10, section 1552 allows the Secretary of the Navy to correct any military record of the secretary’s department when the secretary considers it necessary to correct an error or remove an injustice. 

Accusing a cabinet-level officer of denying due process to a decorated Marine is not something to be undertaken lightly, but due process is a fundamental principle of fairness. There can be no doubt that the Burghardt family deserves more than the unspoken response of, “We screwed up, but you can’t appeal our mistake.” The pope may be infallible but the Department of Defense certainly is not.

Did Rep. Brownley offer specific proof of confusion or errors? An excerpt of official documents between the Marine Corps and Navy follows:

It was also noted that any statement regarding the actions of the 8th of February in which he was already awarded the BV will have to be removed from the citation and SOA. (Summary of Action). I’ve (MC Manpower Unit) removed the statements pertaining to the 8th as well as discrepancies found between the SOA/Citation and the eyewitness statement. So, you have the prior for comparison, I’ve attached the initial SOA, citation and eyewitness statement from SgtMaj Neas.

Translation: The Navy noted that the dates of the eyewitness statements for the Silver Star may have overlapped the date of the Bronze Star already awarded to Burghardt. They directed the Marine Corps Manpower Unit to resolve the problem by removing the statements pertaining to the events of February 8 as well as other discrepancies. The Marine Corps complied with these instructions.

Brownley’s appeal in effect requested, “Based on the DOD documents I submitted, can you clarify the confusion and mixed messages in the communications? It appears that the Marine Corps Manpower Unit resolved the problem working in conjunction with the SECNAV’s office.”

At this point, one of two things should happen. The Department of the Navy could either admit to its mistake or explain why their decision was correct. It did neither and ignored its own documents which substantiated confusion between the Navy and Marine Corps. Since the Manpower Unit complied with the Navy secretary’s office, any further problems should have been resolved between these two offices. The only consideration at this point is whether Burghardt performed acts of valor that warranted the Silver Star. 

To reject any award at all for Burghardt based on administrative confusion makes him a victim once more. The military can and must do better.

One would think that a member of the United States Congress might at least  deserve a specific reply to a specific question. But the Navy and Marine Corps’ response was a masterpiece of bureaucratic babble and basically ended with, “Valor awards cannot be appealed; all decisions are final.” 

Burghardt doesn’t deserve the Silver Star for spending his adult life in a wheelchair, or for the simple fact of his two tours in Vietnam—but these things in themselves suggest he does deserve a simple answer. He deserves the Silver Star due to his courage on the battlefield. Two Marines who served with Burghardt submitted signed sworn statements documenting his valor. One would assume that a rejection of any award would be accompanied with, “Your Silver Star is being denied because . . .”  If mistakes were made by the convening authority, they should either explain or correct them, but the secretary of the Navy and Marine Corps commandant feel no explanation is required. That’s unacceptable.

Burghardt’s son Mike joined the Marines and was himself wounded in Afghanistan. Mike, along with his mother, and the remaining Marines of Alpha Company deserve some resolution as members of the Vietnam generation are dying at a rate of 1,000 every day.

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About Mark Burghardt and Eddie Neas

Master Sergeant Mike Burghardt (USMC, retired) fought in the Afghanistan war. Sgt. Major Eddie Neas (USMC, retired) fought in the battle of Hue City in Vietnam.

Photo: iStock/Getty Images