Do Troops Killed In Oklahoma City Bombing Deserve A Combat Medal?

Aug 17, 2015
Originally published on August 17, 2015 7:48 pm

Constance Favorite looks over a table filled with mementos in the living room of her bungalow in New Orleans — shoes, a tattered combat boot, an American flag and three photos, each of a smiling young woman. It's her daughter, Airman 1st Class Lakesha Levy.

"If our day didn't look bright, she would brighten it up with her little jokes she would tell. I'd say, 'Lakesha, you really should be a comedian,' " Favorite says.

Levy worked in the medical lab at Tinker Air Force Base near Oklahoma City. She liked to crack up friends and family with her impersonations, but she had a more serious goal. She wanted to be a doctor.

"She was a compassionate person, and I think she just wanted to be able to help others," she says.

Levy's dreams were cut short on April 19, 1995. That morning, she put on her boots and fatigues and drove to the Murrah Federal Building to get a new Social Security card. She was there when Timothy McVeigh's truck bomb went off. The 21-year-old mother was among the 168 people who died.

Now, 20 years later, efforts are underway to honor her and five other military service members who died in the bombing. Four of the dead were recruiters. Republican Rep. Steve Russell of Oklahoma, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, introduced language in the Defense Authorization bill to grant them the Purple Heart.

"I understand very well what the Purple Heart means, and I've pinned a number of them on my soldiers. But these warriors that lost their lives performing their duty in an act of terror, they deserve the honor of the nation and it's high time we do it," Russell says.

The Purple Heart was traditionally given to service members who died or were wounded in combat. Congress recently changed the criteria to allow victims of shootings at Fort Hood and the Little Rock, Ariz., recruiting office to receive the decoration. But John Bircher with the Military Order of the Purple Heart says those cases aren't the same as the Oklahoma City bombing. His organization opposes awarding the Purple Heart to the Oklahoma victims.

"What makes Oklahoma City different is that Timothy McVeigh bombed the Oklahoma City federal building in retaliation for the federal government's handling of Ruby Ridge. It had nothing to do with international terrorism," Bircher says.

That distinction — between international and domestic terrorism — is key to Bircher. Under the new criteria, military members killed or wounded by international terrorism or in an attack inspired by international terrorism are entitled to the Purple Heart.

"The soldiers that were working in the federal building that day, they were not the targets of the attack. They were innocent bystanders if you will," he says.

"I think that's an absurd argument," says Russell. The guidelines don't define whether the attacker is foreign or domestic, he argues; what matters is whether the soldier is killed or wounded by an enemy of the United States — an enemy like Timothy McVeigh.

"The oath that we take as warriors says that we will support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic," Russell says.

To family members such as Favorite, the Purple Heart would honor her daughter's sacrifice.

"She loved God first, her family and she loved her country, and I know Lakesha would have achieved and made our country proud," she says.

And to her the Purple Heart — one of the country's highest military honors — would symbolize some good from her family's painful loss.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A memorial service was held over the weekend for the military personnel killed in last month's shooting attack in Chattanooga, Tenn. The deaths reopened a discussion about who's entitled to the Purple Heart, the military's decoration for those killed or wounded in combat. For families of service members who died in the Oklahoma City bombing 20 years ago, the Purple Heart is still an open question. From member station KGOU, Jacob McCleland explains.

JACOB MCCLELAND, BYLINE: Constance Favorite looks over a table filled with mementos in the living room of her bungalow in New Orleans - shoes, a tattered combat boot, an American flag and three photos, each with a smiling young woman - her daughter, Airman 1st Class Lakesha Levy.

CONSTANCE FAVORITE: If our day didn't look bright, she would brighten it up with her little jokes she would tell, you know? I'd say, Lakesha, you really should be a comedian.

MCCLELAND: Levy worked in the medical lab at Tinker Air Force Base near Oklahoma City. She liked to crack up friends and family with her impersonations, but she had a more serious goal. She wanted to be a doctor.

FAVORITE: She was a compassionate person, and I think she just wanted to be able to help others.

MCCLELAND: Levy's dreams were cut short on April 19, 1995. That morning, she put on her boots and fatigues and drove to the Murrah Federal Building to get a new Social Security card. She was there when Timothy McVeigh's truck bomb went off. The 21-year-old mother was among the 168 people who died. Now, 20 years later, efforts are underway to honor her and five other military service members who died in the bombing. Four of the dead were recruiters. Republican congressman Steve Russell of Oklahoma, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, introduced language in the Defense Authorization bill to grant them the Purple Heart.

STEVE RUSSELL: Yeah, I understand very well what the Purple Heart means, and I've pinned a number of them on my soldiers. But these warriors that lost their lives performing their duty in an act of terror, they deserve the honor of the nation, and it's high time that we do it.

MCCLELAND: The Purple Heart was traditionally given to service members who died or were wounded in combat. Congress recently changed the criteria to allow victims of shootings at Fort Hood and the Little Rock recruiting office to receive the decoration. But John Bircher, with the Military Order of the Purple Heart, says those cases aren't the same as the Oklahoma City bombing. His organization opposes awarding the Purple Heart to the Oklahoma victims.

JOHN BIRCHER: What makes Oklahoma City different is that Timothy McVeigh bombed the Oklahoma City federal building in retaliation for the federal government's handling of Ruby Ridge. It had nothing to do with international terrorism.

MCCLELAND: That distinction - between international and domestic terrorism - is key to Bircher. Under the new criteria, military members killed or wounded by international terrorism or in an attack inspired by international terrorism are entitled to the Purple Heart.

BIRCHER: The soldiers that were working in the federal building that day, they were not the targets of the attack. They were innocent bystanders, if you will.

RUSSELL: Well, I think that's an absurd argument.

MCCLELAND: Again, Congressman Steve Russell, who says the guidelines don't define whether the attacker is foreign or domestic. What matters is whether the soldier is killed or wounded by an enemy of the United States, an enemy like Timothy McVeigh.

RUSSELL: The oath that we take as warriors says that we will support and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic.

MCCLELAND: To family members such as Constance Favorite, the Purple Heart would honor her daughter's sacrifice.

FAVORITE: She loved God first, her family, and she loved her country. And I know Lakesha would have achieved and made our country proud.

MCCLELAND: And to her, the Purple Heart, one of the country's highest military honors, would symbolize some good from her family's painful loss. For NPR News, I'm Jacob McCleland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.