Medal Watch: Services weigh standards for military honors
TheJointChiefsofStaffgathered for a meeting in the supersecret “tank”atthePentagon,butthetopic was not how to fight the war on terrorism. It was how to commend those who do the fighting.
The debate in 2005, according to senior defense sources, pitted the Army, Navy and Marine Corps against the Air Force. The Air Force plannedtoawardtwoexpeditionary awards — the Afghanistan Campaign Medal and the Iraq Campaign Medal — to any airmen who participated, even if they were based in the United States. The other three branches protested.
“The Air Force says that the box they’re fighting in is the globe,” a senior defense official said, explaining that the “box” is a theater of war, such as Iraq or Afghanistan.
“The other services say an expedition is to a piece of ground. It’s a box, and it’s not the globe,” said the official, who asked not to be identified.
In the end, the Joint Chiefs chairman and top Pentagon civilians ruled against the Air Force. The two medals would be confined to those who actually served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The debate illustrated how seriously the military takes the questionofmedals—whogetsthemand for what. The tank session also carried broader implications at the Pentagon. It previously had reviewed the four branches’ commendation policies and rules 10 years ago.
A sufficient number of questions arose about other medals that David Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel, set up a special task force to review rules for awarding 36 medals — everything from the Medal of Honor to the Antarctica Service Medal. The task force is expected to release its recommendations later this year.
Bill Carr, deputy undersecretary of defense for military personnel policy, said the goal is not to determine whether past awards were legitimate. Instead, the panel will review requirements to ensure there is as much uniformity as possible in the Department of Defense’s Manual of Military Decorations and Awards.
Mr. Carr said one thing is already clear. Except in one case, he has not seen any evidence of “medal inflation” — commanders handing out Bronze Stars or campaign medals under questionable circumstances.
“The objective is to reduce the differences, such that the presence of a medal on a chest means the samething,orascloseaswecanget to it,” he said. “I think the troops probably care less about the qualifying circumstances as they do about the consistency.”
Mr. Carr said the panel might refine some standards while expanding others. Currently, for example, military personnel wounded by international terrorists are eligible for the Purple Heart. Hundreds received them after al Qaeda’s attack on the Pentagon on September 11. But the military victims of domestic terrorism, such as those killed in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, are not eligible.
Among the 168 dead in that bombing were two Marines at a recruiting office in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. The panel may decide to include those victims, too.
In addition to the interservice squabble over expeditionary medals, three other events prompted the Pentagon review:
lThe Air Force had awarded the Bronze Star, a medal normally associated with performing in a battle zone, to airmen in the United States for missions such as loading bombs onto planes.
“The Army didn’t like that, and neither did the Congress,” Mr. Carr said. Congress enacted a law in 2005 restricting the Bronze Star to personnel who work in a dangerous environment. “The Air Force had given a number of them to people who had performed valuable service, but it wasn’t in a dangerous environment,” he said.
Mr. Carr said this is the only case of “medal inflation” he has found since the war on terrorism began. “I would rate that as inflation because [. . . ] Congress judged that it was inflationary.”
lThe Army awards the “V” device to add to such medals as the Bronze Star, to signify valor. But the Navy and Air Force have different standards. For the Navy, it means the sailor was in combat. For the Air Force, it denotes accomplishments while in harm’s way. Again, the Army is pushing for clarification.
lThe services follow different standards for a Purple Heart. The Army, for example, awards it for a concussion; the Marine Corps requires a severe concussion, as defined by a doctor. The uniform
Historians credit Napoleon with instituting the first system of awards to soldiers based on individual merit and valor, regardless of religion or social background. He created the Legion of Honor, a cross and eagle ensemble he wore proudly. It has survived all the French republics.
When critics questioned the worth of handing out awards, Napoleon was quoted as saying: “We call these children’s toys, I know; it’s been said already. Well, I replied that it’s with such toys that one leads men.”
Themotivationforawardingdecorations has not changed much in the 200 years since.
“It’s central to the sustainment of a sound military ethos,” Mr. Carr said. “In other words, the military tradition and passion and value system. It is very substantially operated by the military to perpetuate thatethosandthatvaluesystemand pass it along to generations.”
ThePentagonispayingsuchclose attention to what personnel wear on their chests because it goes to the heart of being a warrior. In a sense, the decorations are a quick-read service record. The multicolored ribbons and shiny medals tell colleagues where the person has been, whetherhesawcombat,hisbravery and his wounds. Wearing an unauthorized or questionable ribbon is considered a serious offense.
In 1996, Navy Adm. Jeremy “Mike” Boorda, while chief of naval operations, drove from the Pentagon to his Navy Yard compound for lunch. There, he fatally shot himself. Hehadlearnedthepresswasquestioning his wearing of the “V” device, indicating he had been in combat, on Vietnam service ribbons. Adm. Boorda, who served on ships off the coast of Vietnam, was scheduled to answer questions that afternoon with Newsweek reporters.
A factor in Sen. John Kerry’s election loss to President Bush in 2004wasthemedalshewoninVietnam. A group of fellow swift-boat sailors wrote a book questioning the truthfulness of the medal citations. Mr. Kerry ignored the accusations for weeks before finally defending his war service and decorations. Political pundits said the delay cost him votes.
“It is critical to a military member’s credibility that he wear only themedalsheisentitledtowearand which are documented in his or her service record,” said Charles Gittins, a former Marine aviator whose law practice specializes in military law. He said knowingly wearing an unearned medal is a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. A conviction can bring a maximum sentence of six months in jail on each violation. Fighting inflation
Retired Army Lt. Col. Charles Krohn, a Vietnam combatant who earned the Silver Star for heroism, the service’s third-highest award,
The family of Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham gathered in the East Room of the White House on Jan. 11 as President Bush awarded Cpl. Dunham a posthumous Medal of Honor for giving his life to save comrades.