17-year quest for Medal of Honor for WWII hero to go to federal mediator

CINCINNATI — Assistant U.S. Attorney Candice Hill spent almost 15 minutes telling a three-judge panel why a highly decorated World War II veteran’s file should be left alone before emotion got the best of her.

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Hill paused and told the judges from the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati about her father, who was injured while serving with the 3rd Infantry Division in France on Jan. 25, 1945 — a day after Lt. Garlin Murl Conner put himself in the line of friendly fire to help knock down a German assault.

“My father was in a military hospital for over 18 months with a serious wound to his leg,” said Hill, who noted she’d never cried in front of a judge before. “For all I know, Garlin Conner may have been someone who helped save his life.”

That moment and Conner’s sympathetic story helped prompt the panel to send his case to a federal mediator to try and work out an agreement between Conner’s widow and the U.S. Army in a dispute over Lyda Pauline Conner’s 17-year quest to have his decorations upgraded to a Medal of Honor. The decision marked the first ray of hope in a fight that has seen Conner lose at almost every turn.

The mediator’s office did not immediately set a meeting date as of Friday afternoon. The panel will issue a decision only if mediation fails.

Lyda Conner’s attorney noted she wasn’t able to attend the hearing Thursday because she had recently suffered a small stroke. She has poked, prodded and appealed to have her husband’s record upgraded. Her efforts have drawn a legion of volunteers to help, including more than a few who never met her husband before he died in 1998 in southern Kentucky.

Congressmen, senators, military veterans and historians have joined the quest by the 86-year-old widow from Clinton County, Ky., to see Conner honored with the nation’s highest military distinction, awarded for life-risking acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty.

Conner left the U.S. Army as the second-most decorated soldier during World War II, earning four Silver Stars, four Bronze Stars, seven Purple Hearts and the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions during 28 straight months in combat.

Conner’s citation for the Distinguished Service Cross states that on Jan. 24, 1945, near Houssen, France, he slipped away from a military hospital with a hip wound to rejoin his unit rather than return home to Kentucky and unreeled a telephone wire, plunged into a shallow ditch in front of the battle line and directed multiple rounds of fire for three hours as German troops continued their offensive, sometimes getting within five yards of Conner’s position.

The board first rejected Conner’s application in 1997 on its merits and turned away an appeal in June 2000, saying at the time no new evidence warranted a hearing or a new decoration despite more than a dozen letters of support for Conner.

Lyda Conner sued, but U.S. District Judge Thomas B. Russell ruled that she waited too long to present new evidence to the U.S. Army Board of Correction of Military Records. Russell noted Conner’s “extraordinary courage and patriotic service,” but said there was nothing he could do for the family.

Dennis Shepherd, an attorney for the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs arguing on behalf of Lyda Conner, told the panel, which was recorded as part of an audio transcript, “Our main objective here is just to get a hearing” and have the Army review three previously unreviewed accounts of Conner’s actions.

If the Army re-examines the case, they’ll very likely recommend that Conner’s Distinguished Service Cross be upgraded to the Medal of Honor, said Shepherd, who initially took the case on a volunteer basis before the department allowed him to work on state time.

The judges — Eugene Siler Jr., W. David McKeague and Jeffrey S. Sutton — all seemed sensitive to Conner’s plight, but struggled to find a solution. Shepherd noted that, without some action by the Army soon, eyewitnesses now in their 90s won’t be able to give live, emotional testimony about Conner’s actions.

Hill noted the difficulty in arguing against a new review hearing for Conner, calling him a “sympathetic, honorable, valorous person.”

“You seem like a perfect candidate for mediating the case and a great government lawyer,” Sutton told Hill.

Previous versions of this story incorrectly reported that arguments were scheduled for Friday. They took place Thursday.

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