Best Defense

The other stolen valor

Decorations, badges, and medals are the distinct manner in which military societies recognize a service member’s accomplishments.

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By Ryan Blum
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted

Decorations, badges, and medals are the distinct manner in which military societies recognize a service member’s accomplishments. While there are specific differences between the categories, I will refer to them all as “awards” for the sake of simplicity, unless otherwise stated.

A service member (SM) displays his or her awards on the military dress uniform, exhibiting achievements in a precisely arranged order, acting as a worn résumé.

These awards depending on service branch, showcase a SM’s military occupational specialty, unit, marksmanship skills, military schools attended, geographical location history, years of service, months in combat, or whether or not the SM has been wounded.

Other awards are based on accomplishments, such as receiving an Army Achievement Medal for attaining the highest physical fitness score in the platoon, or — like the National Defense Service Medal commends — simply enlisting in the first place.

However, many Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines tell you that the awards that warrant the most deference are those bestowed for heroism and courage in combat, what the Army characterizes as “valor awards.” Combat, in service to the country, is the essence of the Armed Services, and combat awards are preeminent.

Unfortunately, to many veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, the system of issuing these awards is broken, and all too often based on cronyism and rank.

A quick look regarding awards on most military forum websites, and you’ll find the disgust of one medal in particular: the Bronze Star. The once glimmering award, originally created to raise the morale of ground troops fighting in the Second World War, is now considered by the rank-and-file as lackluster.

In a memorandum to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, General George C. Marshall wrote about his support of the award:

“The fact that the ground troops, Infantry in particular, lead miserable lives of extreme discomfort and are the ones who must close in personal combat with the enemy, makes the maintenance of their morale of great importance… the Infantry Riflemen who are now suffering the heaviest losses, air or ground, in the Army, and enduring the greatest hardships.”

The combat arms branches, especially the junior enlisted, lament that the Bronze Star (BSM) has now become a shameless resume-building award for senior NCOs and staff officers, many of whom never experienced combat while in theater.

The Army alone awarded over 170,000 Bronze Star Medals in Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom, only 4,500 of which had the accompanying “V” device, which denotes exceptional valor.

Colloquially named, “blanket awards,” many unit commanders awarded their troops’ end-of-tour awards based solely on military grade.

“At the end of our 12-month Afghan tour, E-4s and below received an Army Achievement Medal — a peacetime award,” wrote former Army Specialist Brandon Smith to me on Facebook.

“E-5s and E-6s all received Army Commendation Medals, and E-7s and above received blanket Bronze Stars. It didn’t matter what they actually did during the tour, whether they patrolled everyday, or sat in an air-conditioned office.”

Obviously, it’s important to recognize the efforts of support and staff personnel, and while the requirements for the bronze star were later broadened to include “meritorious service while in a combat zone,” there is an award specifically for that: The Meritorious Service Medal (MSM). However, the MSM was awarded less than a quarter of the rate of the BSM.

Recently, according to documents obtained by USA Today, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter approved sweeping recommendations from a two-year study that was initiated by his predecessor to review the way in which the Department of Defense awards medals for combat.

Included amongst the 37 recommendations is tightening the criteria for awarding the Bronze Star, and attempting to limit the number of awardees who “face few risks of actual combat.” In addition, the recommendation calls for a uniform definition for meritorious service that would limit combat awards to those exposed to hostile action.

Also included in the recommendations was a review of the over 1,100 Service Crosses and Silver Stars awarded since Sept. 11, 2001 for potential upgrade to the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest award for valor. Furthermore, the review recommends that goals and guidelines be established to ensure that the process for Medal of Honor and other awards are completed in a timely way. Currently, several awards were approved years after the recipient left the service, including several after they passed away.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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