You often read about a guy who is described as “the most decorated soldier in the Korean War” or some such.
I may be the least decorated officer of the Vietnam war.
So in that sense, my qualifications to write about medals may be suspect. But I am going to write about them anyway. If there is an error or omission in this article, tell me about it. I will investigate and, if I find that you are right, I will correct it, apologize if appropriate, and give you credit for bringing it to my attention.
How did I achieve least-decorated status in spite of being a West Point graduate, airborne, Ranger who volunteered for Vietnam? Easy. I did not suck up to my superiors. What does that have to do with earning medals? Almost everything.
The vast majority of military medal awards are bullshit.
Here is a summary list of the points below:
- types of medals
- objective versus subjective criteria
- medals for attendance
- Bronze Stars for nothing
- Purple Hearts
- awards to officers versus enlisted men
- the Congressional Medal of Honor
- throwing yourself on a grenade
- helicopter pilots
- availability of witnesses
- awards to infantry and armor versus other branches
- racial discrimination and reverse discrimination
- Dorie Miller
- Combat Infantryman’s Badge
- medals worn by the current commandant of the Marine Corps, Chief of Staff of the Army, and former CentCom Commander
Roughly speaking, there are two categories:
• those with objective criteria
• those with subjective criteria
You can also break them down into those related to
• heroism in combat
• impressing your boss in a non-combat setting
Although there are a number of medals for showing physical courage, conspicuous by their absence in the military is even a single medal for exhibiting moral courage. No loss, though. Few in the U.S. military ever exhibit moral courage and when they do, like General Billy Mitchell, they are punished, not commended. He was court martialed and forced out of the Army. See my article “No medals for moral courage.”
Some medals have objective criteria. When I say I may have been the least decorated officer who did a tour in Vietnam, you may think that means I received no medals at all.
Excuse me. I got three of them.
How could a guy who pissed off most of his bosses get any medals? They had no choice. The medals I got were attendance medals. They could not deny that I attended.
My Vietnam medals include
• Vietnam service medal
• two of some sort of campaign medals
There is a photo with both my medals (not mine per se, just the same as the ones I got) at http://www.history.navy.mil/medals/vsn.htm. That is a Navy Web site, but those particular medals are the same for both Army and Navy.
You have probably seen the Vietnam service ribbon as a bumper sticker. I have never had such a sticker nor have I ever owned anything with the ribbon design on it other than the ribbon itself which is in a box of old Army junk like my Ranger tab, cadet rank insignia, etc.
The campaign ribbon, which is green and white, was actually awarded by the no-longer-in-business South Vietnamese Army. As with most Vietnam veterans, mine has a scroll indicating I “won” that award twice. The one in the photo listed above has such a scroll because a one-year tour there typically had you in attendance for two “campaigns.” Whatever.
I generally never wore my medals, patches, West Point class ring, or decorations except that I wore my airborne wings when I was in the 82nd Airborne Division. I would have spent a hour a day explaining why I did not have them if I had not worn them there. In my other units, the big shots who needed to know I was an airborne, ranger, Vietnam vet, West Point graduate could see all that in my personnel file. Otherwise, who cares?
Some might figure I did not wear any because it would reveal that I did not have the usual subjective ones. Nah. I was proud of having earned the West Point ring, ranger, airborne, and Vietnam stuff, and those are a bigger collection of the objective awards than the vast majority of officers ever get. And if you do not have the usual subjective medals as a lieutenant, others assume that you must have had a personality conflict with the superiors who normally would have given you the subjective medals, or so several of them told me at the time. I did have a personality conflict with the military bosses who denied me various medals and promotion, as well as other conflicts. I simply thought wearing that stuff was childish showing off that no one else would care about.
Some have argued that I should have worn that stuff to impress my men and get credibility with them. Nah. People who are impressed by that sort of thing are not the kinds of people I want to impress. I would rather impress people who were most interested in how I did my job on a day-to-day basis, not whether I had completed some military school in the past.
Australian soldier’s impression
On 8/28/08, I got an email from a Australian veteran who said,
I trained in the army at Officers School Portsea (Closed 1983), here in Australia and we were always amused about the medals awarded in the American Military. It seemed like someone could get a medal for getting out of bed in the morning. I do not mean to be disparaging, but that was our impression.
Actually, for some medals, like the “I was alive in ’65” medal described below, even getting out of bed was not required.
I was amused at the ”ceremony” where I was awarded my Vietnam Service medal. I had just arrived in Vietnam the day before. I was sitting at a sort of Army card table with a private. He was giving me my Jungle boots, pants, hats, etc. He tossed a little cardboard box that slid across the table to me.
“My medal!? I just got here! How could I have won a medal?”
“It’s for being here. If you set foot in the country, you get it.”
Like I said: attendance
‘I was alive in ’65’ medal
I also got another attendance medal before Vietnam. It’s called the National Defense Service Medal. It was awarded to everyone who was in the military in 1965 because it was a “time of national crisis.”
I was a West Point cadet in 1965. My fellow cadets and I called it the, “I was alive in ’65” medal. We almost all refused to wear it.
Some of our class had been enlisted men in the Army before they came to West Point. For reasons unknown to me, then and now, they generally wore on their cadet uniforms a ribbon known informally as the “Dentine wrapper.” Officially, it was the Good Conduct medal. To put it in my dad’s words, “Oh, that’s just for not being thrown in the stockade during your first six months in the Army.” All enlisted men get the Good Conduct Medal after six months if they avoid going to jail. My dad was a draftee sergeant in World War II.
When the “I was alive in ’65” medal came out, the cadets who were in the Army before West Point added that to their cadet uniforms and thereafter wore two ribbons. I guess some of the girls who came up to West Point for dates thought they were war heroes. The rest of us were embarrassed to have been given a medal for being alive and never wore it as cadets. We were afraid our dates would ask us what it was for.
Cadets also described it, for its colors, thusly:
The red is for the blood we never shed; the blue, for the oceans we never crossed; and the yellow is the reason why.
When you see some general or other brass hat wearing row upon row of medals, keep in mind that almost all are for attendance: being alive in a particular year or being in a particular country for one second or more. They are not much more noteworthy than the gold stars on the attendance portion of your kindergarten report card.
For eons, guys who did not earn medals for heroism have lied about them including wearing them and appearing in public to receive accolades for having earned them. Read the book Stolen Valor for numerous naming names actual case histories about fake Vietnam War heroes and fake Vietnam veterans including one president of the Vietnam Veterans of America and movie star Brian Dennehy. (I was watching TV one day when an announcer said, “Brian Dennehy IS Jack Reed.” “No,” I thought. “I am.” Dennehy made a series of TV movies in which he played a character named Jack Reed. Popular name. It is also the name of a Rhode Island Senator who graduated from West Point.) On 11/1/07, former Atlantic City mayor Robert Levy pleaded guilty to lying about receiving two medals so he could increase his veterans disability benefits by $24,683 over four years. He also claimed to have made parachute jumps that he did not make.
Since I said I was not awarded medals because of my refusal to suck up to my bosses, you may wonder if I did something heroic but did not get a medal for it. Nope. I never did anything heroic. The medals I was denied were Bronze Stars and Army Commendation medals that were given out essentially as attendance medals. I attended as much as the other officers in my unit who got them, but neither they nor I deserved them. The standards for which they are supposed to be given are higher than attendance but, in practice, almost all officers got them just for being officers and for being in a combat zone like all of Vietnam and neighboring areas.
During World War II, my dad was a battery clerk in an artillery battery of the 79th Infantry Division in Europe. Battery clerk, more often called company clerk, is the job made famous by Radar O’Reilly in the movie and TV series M*A*S*H. My dad was not like Radar O’Reilly, but he held the same central position in the battery so he was privy to all the paperwork coming through. He got the job because he was the only man in the battery who could type, a skill he learned in a high school course.
He said that one one day during World War II when he was in Europe, word came down from higher headquarters to award the Bronze Star medal to all the officers in the battery. Another WW II vet who read this and who was in the same part of France as my dad during the war said,
[The bronze Star without a V device for valour] was called the officer’s Good Conduct Medal.
The Bronze Star is supposed to be awarded for courage under fire or meritorious achievement, that is, doing your job well.
That’s a big “or.” It’s like awarding the Congressional Medal of Honor for intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty or getting no cavities at your annual dental check-up.
I suspect the Bronze Star is awarded either for courage under fire or just failing to piss off your boss so that the hundreds of thousands of suck-ups can tell people they won the Bronze Star, but fail to mention that they got the suck-up version rather than the courage-under-fire version. When it’s for courage under fire, the Bronze Star is accompanied by the “V device” indicating valor. My freshman and sophomore year cadet roommate, Dan Kaufman, who later became Dean of the Academic Board at West Point, won the Bronze Star with V device in Vietnam. Do you suppose we could get the non-V-device guys to wear an “S device?”
Most of the bronze stars awarded are for non valor and do not have the V device.
That’s the understatement of the freaking century.
Bronze Stars and ArComs in my Vietnam battalion
In one of the battalions I was in in Vietnam, the unwritten policy on Bronze Stars and ArComs (Army Commendation medal) seemed pretty straight forward.
If the battalion commander really liked an officer, he got two Bronze Stars and an ArCom. While I was there, only one officer fit that description. This lieutenant got his second Bronze Star for giving CPR to a heat stroke victim on a patrol he took out. He should have been court martialed for what he did in that incident, not decorated. I described that incident in detail in another article somewhere at my Web site that I do not recall at present.
If the battalion commander was neutral about an officer, he got one Bronze Star and one ArCom. That was what every lieutenant who was there when I was got except for the guy who got two Bronze Stars (above), me, and a lieutenant who was short, quiet, and slight of build. He only got an ArCom, which I surmised was for not being manly enough. As far as I could tell, he did the same quality work as everyone else.
If the battalion commander liked an enlisted man, that enlisted man got an ArCom.
If the battalion commander did not like an enlisted man, that enlisted man only got a certificate of appreciation from the battalion.
What did I get? None of the above. In the battalion commander’s opinion, I was lower than an unpopular enlisted man, even though I was one of only a handful in the 400-man battalion who were West Point, airborne, ranger grads.
Why? These things are not explained but this is the battalion where my company commander repeatedly ordered me to sign a false arms inventory which I refused to do. It is the unit where I was motor officer for 12 hours because I refused to sign a motor vehicle maintenance report that said 95% of our vehicles were in great shape when, in fact, 85% were dead lined (undrivable). See my article, “Is military integrity a contradiction in terms?” It is also where all the officers but me wore uniforms on our day off, Sunday morning, then changed to civilian clothes at noon. I thought that was dumb and wore civilian clothes to breakfast. I wrote about that at one of my other military articles at this Web site.
Here is an email I got from a visitor to this site about his military experience with Bronze Stars and ArComs.
My name is Michael Grant and I live in Portland Maine and I am a graduate of the Vietnam war from 1972-1973.
Thank you for taking the time to read this
Michael Paul Grant
I [John T. Reed] wrote back to him:
May I post your email in my discussion of medals?
Michael Grant wrote:
Yes you may. I also need to tell you that when I was in the Maine National Guard from 1977 to 1988 it was policy that only the officer staff will be awarded ARCOM’s and that enlisted folks only would qualify for the Army Achievement Medal or the State of Maine AG award. I will always believe in my heart that military officers will pat themselves on the back with fruit salad awards and give enlisted people the peanuts.
Here’s another I got on New Year’s Day 2010:
Great article Mr. Reed. I enjoyed it and also others comments as well. I’d like to add my experiences with this as well.
I am a veteran of OIF 1 (03-04) as an MP in the ARNG. After we arrived in Baghdad, all of the platoons in the Company were split up and given to other higher echelons to supplement their missions. My platoon went to an Artillery Battalion ( which was great since most of us were ‘Gun Bunnies’ before we re classed to MP ), and I remember another platoon was sent to some Infantry Batt. in the 82nd ABN. It so happens that my platoon was now designated to wear the 1st Armored Div. ’combat’ patch. The other platoon, 82nd ABN patch. However, the Inf. guys told them " We don’t wanna see you guys wearing our patch on your right sleeve! It aint right. Ya’ll aint paratroopers. Don’t do it in our site." Hahaha. So I guess some 3 week CONUS course ( Abn school ) is more hooah than patrolling the streets of Baghdad for a year. Pathetic!
Oh yeah, at the end of the deployment, every soldier in the company got their ARCOM. All platoon sgt’s and above got bronze stars. Pathetic.
Here is another I got in April, 2010
Dear Mr Reed
I’ve read your article about military medals with great interest. It did get me to think a bit about my own experiences.
I will start by saying that even though I spent 9-1/2 years active duty and 6 years in the National Guard that I was never in combat so nothing I ever did could qualify as valorous in the normal sense of the word. I don’t want this to get too long, but I want to give a very brief summary of my military service.
U.S. Air Force 1972-1978
U.S. Army 1978-1981
Platoon Leader (Petroleum Pipeline Operating Company)
Army National Guard 1981-1987
Commanding Officer (HQs detachment, Petroleum Supply Battalion)
Corps of Engineers
Petroleum Pipeline Engineer (Brigade S3)
My first real medal other than the usual NDM, GCM, and Expert Marksman Medal (yes, the Air Force gives a medal instead of the badges like the Army) was the Air Force Commendation Medal. The first year I was in the Air Force I spent walking around aimlessly guarding B-52s on nuclear alert, often when it was -20 degrees or worse. In the Air Force, with few exceptions, the only personnel carrying loaded weapons are the Security Police. I think ALL those SAC SPs who ever walked the flight line through a winter on the northern tier deserve some sort of medal. Unfortunately, as you have pointed out, enlisted men (especially the lower ranked ones stuck out in the cold) rarely get medals. I got mine because I was smart enough to get an office job and got to know the Squadron Commander personally. When I was PCSd to air base ground defense training in Texas (headed for Vietnam) in 1973, I asked my E-7 supervisor if I could get a medal of some sort. He asked me what I wanted and I suggested a Meritorious Service Medal. He said, well, that was an “officer medal” but I could get an AFCM. Then he said if I wanted it that I would have to write up the recommendation and citation myself and get the colonel to sign it. Which I did. Even though this is one medal I truly feel I deserved, it was only because I was literate enough to land a job working for the CO and could do all the paperwork myself. The other poor schmucks pounding asphalt at 20 below got nothing but frostbite. But I don’t feel guilty a bit.
Now while I was at that pre-Vietnam training course (this was summer of 73) everyone’s orders were cancelled since no more new troops were getting sent over there. Lucky for me. Most of the airmen got sent back to their previous bases, but because my wife and HHGs had already been sent to my hometown in California, they reassigned me to the only SAC base. This was a major headquarters base with no planes to guard and only cushy jobs for SPs. The best assignment I ever had. I was able to go to night school and then two full semesters on the government’s dime and got my BS degree. I was turned down for Air Force Officer Training School, but then thought, hey! I’ve got an idea…I’ll apply to Army OCS! That was much, much harder than it sounds, but when I was leaving the USAF for Ft. Benning, I did get another PCS AFCM that I did nothing for except doing a good job like I was being paid to do. (In the military though, when an enlisted man actually does a good job the officers are so surprised they can’t help themselves.) The one thing I really wanted that they said I couldn’t have was my Security Police Badge. I personally asked the Squadron Commander if I could have it, he wrote the letter authorizing it, and I was able to take it with me. When I look in my “memory box” once in a while, that means more to me than any medal.
I don’t want to bore you with too much, but after a while I wound up as the S-1 for a Quartermaster Battalion. That job consisted mostly of: typing up the CO’s/XO’s correspondence, processing enlisted and officer evaluation reports, processing medal citations, and being the announcer during parades every Friday afternoon. “Ladies and Gentleman, please rise for the passing of the colors…Ladies and Gentleman, the 267th Quartermaster Company!!…”
I can attest that there was a definite hierarchy when it comes to medals and there was more than a few times when the Battalion Commander personally nixed awards, not because he knew the soldier personally, but because he didn’t like the company CO or even the platoon leader who submitted the award request. Nevertheless, my job as S-1 was a treadmill of “PCS” medals, mostly for officers, CWOs, or senior NCOs. It was extremely rare for anyone below E-7 to get an Army Commendation Medal and when they did they probably deserved it. Later, when the Army Achievement Medal was created that became the default. So at least by the 80s, anyone E-5 and below with an ACM should be given props. That may have changed though since the 90s and Gulf War. Now on the officer side, if you saw an officer who was never enlisted wearing an AAM you know they really pissed someone off. Personally, I’d have been embarrassed to wear an AAM as an officer. And the ACM was not a whole lot better, mostly reserved for mediocre 1LTs. I decided to get out for a host of personal reasons, even though I liked the peace time Army (actually an easy job) and my separation award was a Meritorious Service Medal. That too, believe it or not, is one I’m proud of because even though it was a routine award for the 1LTs/CPTs in favor with the CO, in a year and half as an S-1 I never saw any junior officer separating from the Army get one. The Army generally is not too happy when a junior officer quits. I hadn’t gotten along all that well with my Battalion Commander (never a yes man), so I was surprised when several months later a registered letter showed up with the medal.
Finally, and I want to keep an already too long story less long, I was a Commanding Officer in the North Carolina National Guard. I will say, because most normal awards were “federal” awards they had to be approved at the federal level even if approved by the state AG. So needless to say these were much harder to get for National Guard soldiers and even officers in peace time. Over the last decades with so many active duty deployments this may have changed, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there is still a lot of bias against the National Guard personnel. When I was an S-1 on active duty part of my job was coordinating with NG units from all over the country that were assigned to train with our battalion and I can tell you that there was a lot of bias against what were always called “weekend warriors.” When I actually became a weekend warrior myself, I discovered that at least among the officer corps of the National Guard who had never been on active duty, most of the ridiculed incompetence was more true than I ever imagined. (However, the National Guard enlisted personnel were generally of much higher quality than their active duty counterparts!)
Sorry for such a long letter, but my conclusion is that each service member must decide for themselves what their medals mean to them because the standards for awarding such are so totally subjective and often vindictive. I don’t disagree at all with your article “Did U.S. military personnel really earn all their medals?” Yet, not all medals, even non-combat medals during peacetime are without merit.
Doing my job?
Some might wonder did you do your job? Of course. I am a West Point graduate for Chrisssakes.
What was my job? The battalion commander was mad at me before he met me. I volunteered for the Ranger Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol unit in that corps (D Company 75th Rangers) when I was in the states. I was sent to Vietnam to fill that slot. But a West Point classmate got there the day before me. He had the same resume as I did and he got that job because the Army did not concern itself with issues like which lieutenant volunteered for the damned job.
Instead, I was sent to an air defense artillery unit. You might think this was silly because the enemy had no airplanes in Vietnam. True, but the ADA units were used as perimeter security aiming their anti-aircraft guns horizontal to the ground to shoot at attacking enemy ground forces. I kid you not.
So I report to that unit. One of my company mates from West Point was there. He promised to show me around after I met the CO. The CO went through a big spiel about how every ADA officer in the Army was frantically trying to get into his unit because it was the best one for their career (only ADA unit in Vietnam). I did not understand why he was doing this. One, I was signal corps (communications), not ADA. Two, I was not career.
At one point, he bragged about how many Purple Hearts his unit had been awarded. I laughed quietly and commented that I did not want one of those. I thought he would agree. He was outraged. (To get a Purple Heart, an enemy bullet or shell fragment must pass through your body at a great rate of speed. Many, if not most, Purple Hearts are awarded posthumously.)
‘Do you want the job?’
To my astonishment, after this sales pitch, he leaned back in his chair and said, “Well, Lieutenant Reed, do you want the job?”
My thoughts went something like this.
“Say what!? Do I want this job? What is this—a civilian job interview? I’m in the freaking Army! I was ordered to report here. Mine is not to reason why. Since when do first lieutenants have a choice about what job they get?”
After considering the question for a minute or two, I said, “Sir, I am planning on getting out of the Army as soon as my commitment is up. I am not a career officer. If this job is extremely sought after by career officers and greatly helps their careers, it probably should go to one of them.”
He threw me out of the unit 20 minutes after I had arrived and sent me back to the colonel who had assigned me there. When I arrived back at the replacement depot, the full colonel who had dispatched me had already been chewed out by the lieutenant colonel who “interviewed” me for sending me. Go figure. Colonels outrank lieutenant colonels.
Then the full colonel chewed me out. I rejected his criticism. “Sir, that battalion commander insisted that I kiss his ass in order to join his unit. I will not do that, sir. I will do my job, period.”
The problem was that, on paper, I looked extremely gung ho: West Point, Airborne, Ranger, volunteered for Green Berets, Vietnam, and the LRRP unit. Both the replacement depot colonel and the battalion commander assumed I was a career officer. Assumption is the mother of all screw ups. They felt as if I had lied to them. I did not do any such damned thing. No one ever asked me if I was career. I just wanted to have a sort of gung ho five years then get the hell out.
Some might say how gung ho can you be if you are in the signal corps? Good question. Answer: not much more gung ho than I was. At the time I graduated from West Point, signal corps was considered one of the five combat arms. Some years it is not. Indeed, my two platoon leader assignments were in an infantry battalion of the 82nd Airborne Division and in a heavy artillery (8-inch and 175-mm self-propelled howitzers) battalion in Vietnam.
I would not have been allowed to go to Ranger or Airborne schools if I had not chosen one of the combat arms. My main reason for choosing signal corps was that it paid better. How so? It had the longest schooling by far and you got TDY pay (temporary duty per diem) in addition to your regular pay while you were in school. My second reason for choosing signal corps was that, at that time, most of the training was at Fort Monmouth, NJ. I was from NJ. I wanted to invest in real estate there during my time in the Army in preparation for my planned civilian career as a real estate investor. Indeed, on April 15, 1969, I bought my first duplex in NJ while I was in radio officer school at Fort Monmouth. Also, as I explain in my article about whether someone should go to West Point or stay there, U.S. Army bases are mostly in isolated, relatively rural locations in the Confederacy. The climate and bachelor social life at those bases are awful. In NJ, both were infinitely better.
The colonel then told me he felt obligated to disclose to every unit commander in the corps that I had been thrown out of my first unit in twenty minutes. Gee, thanks, colonel.
He also threatened me that my tour in Vietnam might not go so well if I did not start “playing the game.”
Predictably, none of the various commanders wanted me after hearing his disclosure. So he had to force me down the throat of a battalion commander who had already turned me down.
Assistant to a guy who was not authorized an assistant
So my “job” in that unit was to be the assistant platoon leader to an Officer Candidate School two-year guy who was getting out of the Army the day he left Vietnam. Nice guy. College graduate. But only the most minimal Army training. It was ridiculous for me to be his assistant. Some may think he had combat experience. Nah. There was no combat at that location (Plantation Post near Long Binh).
There is no such thing as an assistant platoon leader. One of my West Point classmates and fellow Airborne Rangers was also in the battalion and was also an assistant platoon leader. As far as I know, he did nothing to antagonize the battalion commander. He later transferred to Green Berets out of that battalion. The battalion commander and my company commanders there were non-West Pointers. As I said in my article on whether you should go to West Point, being a West Pointer often seemed to hurt me during my time as an officer. This battalion would be an example of that.
During my time in that battalion, I got the job of taking a truck-size radio teletype unit (A/N-GRC 26D and a squad of soldiers to install and operate it) to a place called Bunard. I did and brought it back after the several-month Special Forces operation there. There were no problems or complaints about the job I did. That is where the Mad Minute story I tell elsewhere in my military Web pages took place.
That replacement full colonel and I ran into each other many months later in Vietnam. He was a West Point graduate. He was sort of sheepish and reminded me of our first meeting, saying while smiling in a friendly manner that he had chewed me out. I looked him square in the eye, thanked him politely for approaching me in a friendly way, then narrowed my eyes and told him in no uncertain terms that I had not changed one iota during the time I had been there and did not plan to. Not long afterward, I was suddenly transferred to the artillery unit right after I refused to sign the false motor vehicle report. He may still have been the guy in charge of assigning me. Gee, thanks, colonel.
On another occasion, bored, I asked the platoon leader if I could try to straighten out all the non-vehicle equipment we had that was not working. He thought it was a great idea. First, I found that some of our paperwork was not in order and cleaned that up. Then I discovered that many requisitions we had properly submitted were not filled. The regs said I had to file follow-up forms. I did. Higher headquarters told me that was illegal.
Huh!? The regs say it is required.
Those Army regs were superceded by a USARV reg that says no follow-ups.
Really!? OK. Well, I’m gonna need a copy of that reg because I doubt my commanders will believe me.
There is nothing to copy. It’s a verbal reg.
Verbal? Are you kidding?
I then told my platoon leader that I needed to go over to USARV (Headquarters, United States Army in the Republic of Vietnam) and try to get a copy of that reg. I assumed they had some sort of reg library there where I could look it up and copy it.
Court martial me?
I was wandering the halls of the USARV HQ building, the Pentagon of Vietnam, which was a sort of suburban office building, looking at the various directories on the walls trying to figure out where the reg library would be. A major saw me and asked me if he could help me. When I explained what I was doing, he chewed my ass for “going outside the chain of command.” I protested that I was just looking for a document, not any majors or other officers. I said I figured I would find a spec. 4 in charge of a room that had the regs. He ordered me back to my unit where my battalion commander had already had been chewed out by phone when I returned. There was talk of court martialing me for going there without permission of my commander, but the platoon leader said he OKed my going there.
Previously, in the states, I had occasion to wander the halls of the real Pentagon in Washington, DC for reasons I forget. While I was studying the directories there looking for my destination, no one accosted me and chewed me out for going “outside the chain of command.”
In Vietnam, I was ordered to go through the chain of command.
Oookay. I sent a letter to the company commander listing all of our overdue requisitions. No response. I went to his office to ask about it. He told me he was not going to do anything about it. I thanked him and informed him that meant I would then have to go to the battalion commander about it. He could not refuse.
Battalion commander then Corps Commander
The battalion commander sensed that my next stop was the Corps Commander: Lieutenant General Julian J. Ewell. The battalion commander asked me what the top-priority items were. I explained that the corps commander’s FM radios were going to all go out any minute because all the handsets but one had worn out (worn connector pins) and the last one was more rapidly wearing out because we had to constantly move it from radio to radio.
He made a couple of phone calls. Suddenly we had eight brand-new handsets. Disaster averted.
What were the phone calls? He was going outside the chain of command by calling friends he had met throughout his career and asking for favors or calling in favors he had done them in the past. That’s the way the lifers really get things done when the spirit moves them. He was not court martialed for going outside the chain of command. That all-purpose, blank-check accusation is just trotted out when you piss someone off. Informally it’s one of those “trumped-up charges” you often hear about. You cannot go through the chain of command because the chain of command writes your officer efficiency report and any attempt to go “through” them means going over their heads which will be the end of your career. And you cannot go outside the chain of command because it’s illegal. Catch 22. Checkmate. Now shut up and go sit in the corner and wait until you’re eligible to retire at half pay.
The battalion commander also told me to stop pursuing the other unfilled requisitions in any way, shape, or form. Remember this is in Vietnam, during a war. Ooookay. My mistake. I thought fixing our broken equipment was a good thing. I did not realize that doing so embarrasses incompetent and/or negligent superiors who outrank the battalion commander and is therefore absolutely verboten, other “less important” issues, like losing the war, notwithstanding.
I could go on, but you get the idea. As holder of a non-existent job as assistant to a platoon leader who himself had little to do (because the battalion was designed to be moving constantly but was, instead, fixed), I had to look for stuff to do and whenever I started to do anything, I was ordered to stop, essentially for doing it the way it’s supposed to be done which screws up the Situation Normal All Fouled Up Army by forcing others, including people who outrank my superiors, to do their jobs.
Mess hall and field jacket inspector
I’ll give you two more examples. My next-to-last job as an Army officer was assistant to the assistant supply officer. They ordered me to inspect the mess halls at Fort Monmouth. I did. But the company commanders complained bitterly that I was doing surprise inspections rather than informing them in advance. I said that would greatly reduce the effectiveness of the inspection and that it should not make any difference if the CO was doing his job. I was promptly removed from that duty.
My final job was signing off on the supply paperwork of soldiers who were processing out of the Army. In that job, I replaced a spec. 4—the equivalent of a corporal. I surmise I was supposed to be humiliated by this. Actually, I liked it because I was finally working in a building by myself away from the lifers. I don’t think the taxpayers were getting much for all the money they spent training me for five years in that job, but, hey, mine is not to reason why and those high ranking officers have information to which I may not be privy. Maybe they had great reasons for putting me in a spec. 4’s job.
Anyway, I got taken out of the job as well. Why? At that time, 1972, soldiers were fond of keeping their Army field jacket when they got out of the Army. That was not allowed. It was one of the pieces of property that was rather valuable, owned by the Army, and had to be turned in before you got out. My signature on their out-processing papers meant, among other things, that they had turned in their field jacket. When I refused to sign off for the soldiers who brought no field jacket to my supply building, the soldiers would scream bloody murder because all their buddies had kept theirs. The lack of my signature meant they had to pay for it out of their final pay to get out. After several days of refusing to sign off on such soldiers, I was replaced by a Spec. 4 who would.
If you have been in the Army, you are probably nodding your head while reading this. If not, you probably think I am exaggerating. If you are in the latter group, I hope you join the military. It will serve you right. But you might want to check with another guy who was in before you make that mistake.
Ostensibly, Purple Heart medals are objective. You have to be wounded by the enemy to get one. But as the Swift Boat project book Unfit for Command alleged, military personnel sometimes get them undeserved either because the wound in question was self-inflicted or because it was so minor or indirect that few would try to get a Purple Heart for it. That book said that one of John Kerry’s three Purple Heart medals was for a self-inflicted wound (getting hit by rice grains blown up by Kerry’s own grenade) and that another was so minor the doctor was annoyed that Kerry made him fill out paperwork so he could get the Purple Heart.
Apparently, the truth about Kerry cannot be proven one way or the other, but I found the Swift Boat allegations credible. Kerry seemed to be campaigning for President while he was in Vietnam in many ways, including pursuing medals. Kerry was awarded two Silver Stars and three Purple Hearts. Kerry was only assigned to Swift Boats for a brief period (about four months) and was able to get himself out of Vietnam, and did so, because of a rule that allowed him to do so because he had three Purple Hearts.
Generally, Purple Hearts are legitimate, earned medals. They may or not indicate heroism. They may also indicate stupidity or foolhardiness or glory seeking, but I will generally give a Purple Heart winner the benefit of the doubt. At the very least, a legitimate Purple Heart award means that the military person in question was within range of enemy weapons and that they probably were aiming at him or a group that he was a member of when they fired.
One of my West Point roommates said after reading this that there should be different grades of Purple Hearts for posthumous, disabling wounds, serious wounds that heal, and John Kerryesque boo boos that require no medical treatment. I suggest a Pink Heart or a TS card for the last category. I also suggest Blue Hearts or some such for line-of-duty deaths and serious injuries not caused by the enemy like Pat Tillman’s friendly-fire death.
Purple Hearts and other heroism medals
The most interesting thing to me about Purple Hearts is their proximity to other medals awarded for heroism. For example, my erstwhile cadet roommate Dan Kaufman who won a Bronze Star with a V device for valor also got a Purple Heart in that same action. Indeed, the burst of enemy fire that wounded him killed his APC driver who was next to him.
You should be somewhat suspicious of military personnel who have one or more heroism medals, but no Purple Hearts. This is especially true of groups where numerous heroism medals were awarded, but few or no Purple Hearts. It is the opposite analog of the situations in Vietnam like My Lai where numerous dead were reported along with few or no enemy weapons captured. That scenario suggested that unarmed civilians were murdered rather than a firefight with enemy soldiers.
The Swift Boat veterans make much of the fact that John Kerry’s swift boat did not need repairs for enemy fire damage in the actions where he was purportedly wounded by enemy fire.
Where there is enemy presence and valor medals are awarded, there ought to also be multiple Purple Hearts and enemy fire damage to vehicles and other equipment. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Where there is no smoke, there probably was no fire either.
The fascinating, best-selling book Freakonomics applies economic statistical techniques to all sorts of interesting situations like comparing how long it takes for a Realtor® to sell her own house to how long it takes to sell her clients’ homes. (It took longer to sell the Realtor’s own homes because they held out for higher prices than they recommended that their clients hold out for.) I wish that author, Steven D. Levitt, would apply those techniques to the question of the awarding of heroism medals compared to the awarding of Purple Hearts to the same guys for the same actions.
I suspect he would find that there are often suspiciously more purported acts of heroism than there are wounds and equipment damage in the same actions. I also suspect that he would find that there are suspiciously more Purple Hearts being awarded to enlisted men and suspiciously more heroism medals being awarded to officers in the same actions. In other words, in a given battle, the enlisted men get wounded and the officers get decorated.
I would also like Freakonomics author Steven D. Levitt to compare the medals awarded to officers to the medals awarded to enlisted men. Also, the medals awarded to high-ranking officers to the medals awarded to low-ranking officers. I don’t think there is any question that the number of medals awarded will be shown to be directly proportional to rank. That is, the higher your rank, the greater the probability you will be awarded a medal for a given action, while lower ranking enlisted men and officers who were just a few feet away in the same action received no medals or fewer medals.
I commented during the 2004 Kerry campaign that his enlisted fellow swift boat crewmen were awfully loyal to him considering they were standing right next to him on a very small boat when he got his two Silver Stars and three Purple Hearts yet they got few, if any, medals in the exact same actions against the enemy. I figured they were willing to keep their mouths shut about whether Kerry deserved his medals so they could be famous as the former crew of the president of the United States. The swift boat veterans who criticized Kerry were also there with him at the same time but they would not get fame if he won the election because they were in different boats (except for the main author who replaced Kerry on Kerry’s boat).
As the above discussion of the Bronze Stars and ArComs reveals, many times officers get medals or higher medals for essentially the same undecorated service as enlisted men in the same command at the same time. Apparently, such medals do not reflect any performance by the recipient in question in the situation cited, notwithstanding the words in the medal citation or the criteria for the medal. Rather, such awards are mere echoes of the commissioning ceremony that occurred years before. That is, if you got commissioned as an officer in, say, 1968, you receive Bronze Stars, ArComs, and other medals for decades thereafter, really, just for having been commissioned back in 1968.
Career officers will admit privately that what I am saying is true. They will argue, privately, that there is a widespread medal inflation in the officer corps and if a given officer decides to play it straight and only award medals according to their actual criterion and actual officer performance, that officer will destroy his subordinate officers’ careers. And he is right, but that does not justify this routine dishonesty. It is yet another manifestation of lack of integrity and moral courage in the military.
Here is an email I got from a current active-duty Navy officer who wishes to remain anonymous.
Good points. I had forgotten that the military is very big on welcoming and going-away ceremonies. They have to be—someone is doing one or the other almost every week.
When you leave a unit, you typically get some sort of plaque or other gift that has some mention of the unit on it and a medal or two. (I never got any such plaques or going-away medals.) The typical officer has a collection of plaques that would rival Bob Hope’s den. And since you also get a medal for leaving, that’s a lot of medals. The medals my battalion gave out in Vietnam were part of the departure ceremony, usually added onto the supper meal in the officer’s mess.
Politicians including those on active duty like to visit the front like tourists and get medals for doing so. You can read the silver star citation of Lyndon Johnson here. Even the wording of the citation does not meet the criteria for the silver star. He went on a bombing mission as a tourist. They got shot at. He was “cool.” He cares? He was just a passenger. Johnson was a congressman before World War II. He went into the Navy as a lieutenant commander. Most career Navy officer retire at that rank. He started at it. The silver star is an Army medal and he was given it by the Army, not the Navy, his branch of service. He later became Senator, vice president, and president.
Obviously, he only got the medal because he was a congressman. No doubt he was neither the first nor the last.
No combat, please, we’re bureaucrats
Here’s an email I got on 1/5/09:
Here is one of my experiences with medals.
One of my squads was on patrol in Mogadishu in 1993. They came under machine gun fire and one of the Marines was instantly killed. Another Marine packing an M203 fired an HE round right at the ambushers but was within the arming distance so the round bounced away harmlessly. While still under MG fire this kid runs down the alley enough to get some arming distance and sends the ambushers off to Allah.
The SecDef was coming to visit us and we were rushed to put a few men forward for recognition and this guy was an obvious choice so I hand wrote his citation saying the above. A few days later, the S1 who was a buddy of mine and knew my temper took me aside and said he had some bad news. He shows me my handwritten citation and the attached note that read "Sounds too much like combat! Remove all references to action and resubmit."
By the way, the award was a Navy Comm with V….it’s not like I was shooting for a Silver Star or anything.
Well, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
As you predicted
Here is an email from a West Point Lt. in Iraq
…awards are still very much inflated, as you predicted. I know several people here who will probably get Bronze Stars and they barely left the base at all—when they did, it was on an aircraft, not on the roads where the real danger is.
The suicide of the top officer in the Navy
Admiral Jeremy Boorda was the first former enlisted man and was also the first Navy head who was not an Annapolis (U.S. Naval Academy) graduate who worked his way up to the very top job in the U.S. Navy: Chief of Naval Operations. (The other branches call it Chief of Staff but the Navy has to be different—some sort of stepchild, sibling-rivalry thing.)
Army Colonel David Hackworth, the most decorated officer in the U.S. military, called for a public investigation into two medals on which Boorda wore V devices indicating they were awarded for valor. Hackworth and media accounts said Boorda was not authorized to wear the V devices. Boorda committed suicide, shooting himself in the chest while he was still Chief of Naval Operations. He had been told an hour earlier that the NewsWeek editor who was going to interview him was going to be asking about the V devices. He abruptly said he had to go home to eat lunch and, while at home, shot himself. He left two notes one of which was addressed to his sailors and said he felt disgraced.
Two years after the suicide, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Jr., who had been Boorda’s commander in Vietnam and who also became Chief of Naval Operations, said Boorda was authorized to wear the V devices. Apparently, Zumwalt had issued some sort of blanket authorization for all those on 100 ships in the Vietnam war zone that they could wear such devices on certain medals. (See http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/borda.htm)
The paperwork on the medals in question did not contain the wording required to authorize V devices. In 1995, on the advice of the Navy’s Office of Awards and Special Projects, he removed the decorations from his ribbons. The Navy did not officially determine whether Boorda was entitled to the V devices based on the technicality that no one had petitioned the Board of Correction of Military Records for such an investigation.
I do not regard the Boorda incident as significant or typical. Whatever their other faults. military officers generally do not wear medals they were not authorized. Too many of their colleagues would immediately recognize the fraud. That is not to say they don’t wear medals they did not earn according to the official criteria for the medals. They do that constantly.
The Boorda incident does illustrate the perceived importance of medals to one’s career.
The Congressional Medal of Honor is almost always a legitimate award, but I still have some complaints about it.
For one, there seems to be a component of extreme popularity in many of the awards. The two Medal of Honor recipients I knew, Gary Littrell and Buddy Bucha, were both extremely popular personality-wise. Bucha was a member of the West Point Class of 1965. He was my regimental (1,200 cadets) commander when I was a freshman in the Class of 1968. I never spoke to him, but plebes at West Point are very aware of seniors, especially regimental commanders. Bucha’s Medal of Honor citation is at his Wikipedia entry.
I would not be surprised if their getting the Medal of Honor had something to do with their likeability. If not, it’s a hell of a coincidence. I’m not saying they did not deserve the medals. Rather, I am saying that heroic behaviors in battle seem more widespread than awards of the Medal of Honor. In other words, it appears to me that unpopular guys who exhibit comparable or greater bravery often do not get the medal. Too few CMHs are given out. Perhaps because those who decide think you need to not only be very brave in a given action but a saint in general as well.
A visitor to this Web article accused me of “casting aspersions” on Buddy Bucha and the Medal of Honor itself. I see no basis for that, plus, I asked Buddy. He responded, after reading this article,
I read your article and found nothing offensive or disparaging in it with regard to the brief passage about Gary and me.
In closing, I am not offended by your comment.
Bucha also made several other general comments worth note.
|Bucha comment||Reed response|
|By [the Swift Boat Vets] suggesting that the system is so prostituted that one can fake a Purple Heart intentionally is to cast a very dark shadow over the awards systems which in turns cheapens all that we have to give the widow, mother or father and/or family of a fallen soldier. I understand that some times medals are given that might not measure up to similar medals awarded in other circumstances. The system is not perfect, but it is not prostituted.||
A fallen soldier, by definition, would not fake the purple heart for the enemy fire that caused his death.
The Swift Boat vets accused Kerry of getting one purple heart for being hit by flying debris from his throwing his own hand grenade into an enemy rice cache to destroy it. Since the Swift Boat Vets were not eyewitnesses, they were stretching to give such detail. They also said he got a purple heart for a minor scratch. Again, I would like to have heard that from the doctor who treated Kerry and wrote up the paperwork that qualified Kerry for the purple heart as a result of that wound.
I thought the Swift Boat vets were stretching to find fault on a couple of occasions in the book like where they complained that the enemy guy Kerry shot dead was a teenager in a loin cloth. Lots of Americans were killed by teenagers in loin cloths in Vietnam.
|[Swift Boat vets accusations are]
decades old rewrites from so called witnesses with an obvious political agenda
Kerry’s version is just as old and he certainly had the biggest political agenda among the Swift Boat Vets and himself. The SB vets are lawyers and such. Kerry is the only career, professional politician among them. I am not aware of any dispute about the Swift Boat vets being Kerry’s replacement, peers, and colleagues at the time. As I recall, they claimed to be eyewitnesses to some Kerry events and not to others. Again, I am not aware that even Kerry questioned whether they witnessed the things they said they witnessed.
Speaking of politics, I was surprised to read in Bucha’s Wikipedia write up that he is a foreign policy advisor to Obama. Such persons were typically supporters of Kerry not Bush in 2004. The other Medal of Honor winner I mentioned above, Gary Littrell, was briefly prominent in the 2000 FL presidential election recount when the Dems proposed throwing out absentee ballots. Bush supporter Littrell went on TV to protest that many such ballots are from U.S. military personnel stationed overseas. Being a Medal of Honor winner does not elevate you above politics nor does it give all the medal winners the same political views.
|I understand that some times medals are given that might not measure up to similar medals awarded in other circumstances.||Agree.|
|The system is not perfect, but it is not prostituted.||
I will defer to Bucha’s judgment with regard to awards of the Congressional Medal of Honor. Both he and Gary Littrell were both presidents of the Medal of Honor society. I know little about awards of the second highest bravery award, the Distinguished Service Cross, Distinguished Flying Cross, or the Navy Cross. However, I disagree with regard to the Silver Star and the Bronze Star and many non-bravery awards. Many, maybe most, of those awards are valid. But many are not. Were they “prostituted?” The pertinent definition of that word is “To sell (oneself, one’s artistic or moral integrity, etc.) for low or unworthy purposes.” Yes, they were prostituted. See the discussion of Lyndon Johnson’s Silver Star in this article. Here is a similar discussion of Senator Joseph McCarthy from his Wikipedia write up: He flew twelve combat missions as a gunner-observer, earning the nickname of "Tail-Gunner Joe" in the course of one of these missions. He later claimed 32 missions in order to qualify for a Distinguished Flying Cross, which he received in 1952. McCarthy publicized a letter of commendation which he claimed had been signed by his commanding officer and countersigned by Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, then Chief of Naval Operations. However, it was revealed that McCarthy had written this letter himself, in his capacity as intelligence officer. A "war wound" that McCarthy made the subject of varying stories involving airplane crashes or antiaircraft fire was in fact received aboard ship during an initiation ceremony for sailors who cross the equator for the first time.
The pertinent “low or unworthy purpose” was to use the award to improve political chances and to deceive people about the military service of the Senator in question. There have been many other incidents of inappropriate blanket awards of medals that are supposed to be awarded only on a case-by-case basis. It is less true of the Bronze Star with a V device and the Silver Star than of non-bravery medals, but there are too many incidents involving the Silver Star and V to characterize the system as merely “imperfect.”
|Bucha said there was nothing wrong with Boorda wearing a V device.||
That seems to be the official consensus although some Navy lawyer recommended that Boorda stop wearing it and Boorda committed suicide when Newsweek was about to report his wearing of the V. I don’t know what to make of it all. By Bucha’s and Zumwalt’s account, Boorda certainly seems to have overreacted when he shot himself.
My sense is that the Navy did three things out of frustration with the lack of medal-winning opportunities for their non-pilots: create the swift boats, create the “riverine” force commemorated in the “fictional” book The Lionheads, and blanket award V’s to sailors sitting on ships that had no enemy contact in the South China Sea. As far as I can tell, the Navy simply felt left out of the “fun” and took these steps to get in on it. Men die as a result of such sibling rivalry nonsense in the U.S. military, including, apparently, Boorda.
|Bucha said authorities should perhaps look deeper into medal awards when an area is proclaimed to be so dangerous that virtually everyone there is due a medal, then a subsequent set of commanders in the same area makes no such report.||Makes sense.|
|But if you look a chest full of ribbons and you see a particular leader has been there in the fights and his or her rank suggest that when there they were in a position to received awards of valor and yet none were received, then perhaps you are looking at leadership perfection personified. Mission accomplished, no KIA, no WIA no valor required.||
Excellent point. The bottom line is accomplishing the mission, not being brave or getting wounded. On D-Day, the Allies who landed on Juno, Sword, Gold, and Utah beaches accomplished their missions and suffered relatively light casualties. But the guys who landed on Omaha Beach and Pointe du Hoc, got chewed up and probably got a lot more purple hearts and bravery awards.
The difference was due in part to intelligence mistakes, navigation mistakes, very bad terrain (bluffs), and so on. One just looking at the awards of medals for wounds and bravery might conclude that the Omaha Beach leaders were better than the others. But good leadership often reduces casualties and the need for valor. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and an ounce of superior preparation and leadership often prevents a pound of casualties and requirements of taking dangerous chances (bravery) to accomplish the mission.
|I recommended others for awards and some were simply just not processed by the Division HQ out of indifference or distraction.||Another good point. In addition to malevolence, many medals are not awarded as a result of plain old inefficiency, lack of motivation, and error. Generating and getting approval of medal awards is, among other things, extra work for all involved. Furthermore, the people who have to do the extra work rarely get any bravery medals themselves. No one ever got in trouble for not awarding a deserved medal.|
|I have no doubt in some case personality is a factor since that same personality may very well be the reason, a particular individual acts in a particular way that others may determine is valor.||I was using personality only in the sense of likeability. Bucha’s use is also true. Different personalities shine in different challenges.|
|The key is that we must believe, while not perfect, that the ribbons or medals awarded are merely expressions of thanks from a grateful nation.||I think expression of thanks is one of two official purposes of medals. The other is motivating military personnel to behave in ways that enhance national defense. However, I must add that there are absolutely other unofficial uses of medals, namely to impress voters in subsequent political campaigns, to get promotions and status among fellow military personnel, to impress civilians, to elevate the self-esteem of insecure individuals, to “keep up with the Jonses” in rivalries between military branches and services. And the withholding of medals awarded to others who served the same (my connection with medals) is used as a punishment and to motivate subordinates to comply with OVUM and OPUM.|
|Often, I would suggest, medals may act as obstacles to particular career paths or opportunities. And in those case, the medals may in fact be burdens that prevent an individual from achieving more and rising to higher success.||
Aha! VERY interesting observation coming from a winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor. Surprising and a little intriguing, actually. At another article about the military at this Web site, I quote Wes Clark (West Point class of ’66) as saying if you want to have a successful career as an Army officer you need to avoid being a Rhodes Scholar, Heisman Trophy winner, or winning the Congressional Medal of Honor. My Succeeding book has multiple warnings about this unexpected adverse effect of high achievement. I would be very curious as to exactly what Bucha is referring to here, but I don’t want to bother the guy. I will simply note that Bucha resigned from the Army in 1972, seven years after graduation. He got an MBA from Stanford which gave him an additional four-year obligation and may account for why he did not get out after he completed his West Point four-year obligation which would have been 1969. You might think a guy who won the Congressional Medal of Honor would be inclined to stay in the Army for a career. In the context of his comment, it would appear there are some unexpected ramifications of winning the CMH. Maybe jealousy?
It is all the more interesting when you note the timeline of his brief military career: 1965—graduate from West Point; 1965-7—Stanford MBA program; 1967—101st Airborne Division, Fort Campbell, KY; 1967-70—Phuoc Vinh area of South Vietnam (I visited Phuoc Vinh several times in 1969-70 as part of my II Field Force radio officer duties.); April, 1970—Bucha departs Vietnam (he must have extended his original one-year tour for at least two six-month periods to be there from 1967 to April, 1970); May 14, 1970—Bucha awarded Medal of Honor; 1970-2—accounting instructor at West Point; 1972—resigned from the Army.
In other words, his entire time in the Army after he got the CMH and observed that medals may act as “obstacles” or “burdens” to success were spent at West Point. ???
|Again, thanks for sharing your article.
Thanks for your contribution to it.
Douglas MacArthur’s Medal of Honor
Douglas MacArthur’s father Arthur MacArthur (no kidding) got the Medal of Honor in the Civil War. He was as theatrical as his son, if you can imagine such a thing. If you have any doubts, read about how he died. Son Douglas got the Medal of Honor, too. For what? For leaving his men on Corregidor while he and his wife and son snuck out of there in a PT boat. Those men he left behind ended up in the Bataan Death March. Douglas made speeches like “I shall return” and did wading ashore in a class A khaki uniform for photographers.
I don’t think Douglas MacArthur deserved the Medal of Honor for what he did in the Philippines in 1942. He may have deserved it for his heroism during World War I. Rather, I think he got the Medal of Honor in 1942 because in those early dark days of World War II when America was getting its butt kicked in Pearl Harbor and the Philippines, the nation needed heroes. They gave him the Medal of Honor because the public wanted someone to be proud of and inspired by. That is not the criterion that is supposed to be used.
Pat Tillman getting the Purple Heart and Silver Star, neither of which he was entitled to because of the lack of enemy fire, are another example of medals being awarded for public relations and support for the war rather than individual actions that qualify for the medal. See my article on the Tillman incident.
I also do not like generals getting Congressional Medals of Honor. It is not their job to be that far forward in a battle. They cannot effectively do what they are supposed to be doing, coordinating the attack or defense, with bullets whizzing and explosives going off around them. They know too much to be that close to being captured by the enemy. It is theoretically possible that a general might deserve one, it would take an extremely rare, if not non-existent, situation.
Some of medals are reserved exclusively for generals and admirals. For example, the Navy Distinguished Service Medal is for stuff you do in a “duty of great responsibility.”
Hell, I think an investigation should ensue whenever anyone above the rank of captain gets a bravery medal. Majors who are S-3s (operations officers) or battalion XOs (executive officers—second in command) and battalion commanders in infantry or armor battalions might legitimately be awarded bravery medals—like the Ia Drang Valley battle commemorated in the book and movie We Were Soldiers.
Compare the criteria for the bravery medals to the job descriptions of the different ranks. Captains and lieutenants are company commanders and platoon leaders. The criteria use phrases like “risk of life,” “gallantry,” “heroic.” Majors and above generally should not be in such situations. They should be looking at maps and talking on radios.
As I said in my article about Hollywood depictions of weapons, I think throwing yourself on a grenade is a bad idea for all concerned. Read that article for details like those about former VA head and Senator Max Cleland who would be dead if he had thrown himself on a grenade instead of trying to pick it up. (It was not in combat. He thought it had fallen off his own belt when he got out of a helicopter and was just picking it up to put it back on his belt. He did not know the pin had come out of it and it was going to explode.)
There seems to be a policy that throwing yourself on a grenade “to save your buddies” gets you an automatic Congressional Medal of Honor.
Throwing yourself on a grenade is stupid. It insures you are killed and probably few if any of your buddies would have been seriously hurt if you had instead just yelled “Grenade!” and dove away from it.
Many young men have self-esteem problems and insecurities. Many probably dream of being the big posthumous Medal of Honor hero as a result of throwing themselves on a grenade. That would explain the apparent upsurge in this stunt.
By automatically awarding the CMH to such men, the military and Congress encourage this stupid move. It is akin to naming high schools, high school stadiums, and other high school buildings after high school students who commit suicide. Most schools stopped doing that after it was pointed out that it encouraged such suicides. The deceased students figured it was their best shot at immortality. Some soldiers and Marines are apparently now figuring the same thing with the guaranteed-CMH belly flop on the grenade.
Too few CMHs
There can be no question that too many medals are given out by the U.S. military. I read that after our invasion of Grenada, the number of medals given out, 8,612, exceeded the number of U.S. military personnel who were ever in Grenada.
When it comes to the Congressional Medal of Honor, however, I believe too few are given out. For one thing, there appears to be a one-man-per-battle limit. (Exception: In the Battle of Vera Cruz, whatever that was, 56 Navy guys got Medals of Honor. Hell, there were only 92 casualties in that battle, only 22 of whom died. The Navy is weird—some sort of stepchild, sibling-rivalry thing.)
For example, it appears to me that damned near everyone who landed in the first wave on Omaha Beach on D-Day should have gotten one. Similarly, Admiral Nimitz famously said that “Uncommon valor was a common virtue” on Iwo Jima. One could argue that a hell of a lot of those guys should have gotten the CMH.
It is extremely unlikely that only one man earned the CMH is some of our extremely ferocious battles like the Ia Drang Valley in Vietnam, Black Hawk Down in Mogadishu in Somalia, Gettysburg, and many others.
Medics have gotten a disproportionate share of CMHs. They probably still have received fewer than they should have. Just think about where they are on the battlefield.
A hundred guys are pinned down by enemy fire. One gets hit. The medic goes to him. Obviously, that one who got hit was probably in the worst location on the battlefield at that moment. Now the medic has to join him there. Plus the medic’s work requires him to be in a body position other than flat on the ground which is probably the position of the wounded man before he got wounded. F’get about it.
Same goes for helicopter pilots who go into hot landing zones.
The basic everyday job description of a medic or hot LZ helicopter pilot almost replicates the exact wording of the bravery medal citations.
Too few posthumous awards
I suspect there are too few posthumous awards of the CMH. Why? Because it is more compelling and enjoyable for the living to make a hero of a survivor than of a victim. Living heroes are more useful to the nation than dead ones. Death is depressing. Survival is uplifting.
David Hackworth’s book About Face
In his book About Face, Army Colonel David Hackworth says that he and his buddies sat around after combat writing up medal citations on each other. But he said that the officers generally rejected or downgraded the medals awarded as a result. In one case, he and his buddies recommended a guy who had been killed in Korea for a Congressional Medal of Honor. The officer who received the paperwork downgraded it. Hackworth attributed this to the inarticulateness of the enlisted men in writing the recommendation.
I suspect there was also a bias against enlisted men at work.
Medals awarded to ease the consciences of the officers who incompetently ordered them to their deaths or injuries
In About Face, Hackworth quoted a fellow Korea War officer, Roy Herte, to the effect that sometimes bravery medals are awarded to salve the consciences of higher ranking officers who stupidly sent men to their deaths or serious injuries. Herte was awarded a Silver Star after a mission he had protested before it went out. It was a broad daylight patrol to enemy lines to capture a prisoner of war. Such patrols, always extremely dangerous, are almost always scheduled for night time, especially in terrain devoid of vegetation like the trench lines in the latter stages of Korean War. The patrol could be observed by the enemy almost from its beginning. Three men were killed on the doomed patrol before it got close to the enemy.
Years later, Herte said to Hackworth,
To this day, I contend that the award [Silver Star to Herte] was made not so much for any heroism on my part but to placate the consciences of those who made the inept decision to send the patrol out in the first place.
Hackworth said he agreed with Herte’s analysis of the motivations of the officers who both ordered the patrol and the Silver Star for Herte, but he added that Herte did deserve the Silver Star for his actions on the patrol. He apparently did not think that the officers who recommended the Silver Star knew about the details of Herte’s action in the patrol. (This story is related on page 260 of the paperback version of About Face that was copyrighted in 1989.)
Medals awarded to co-opt the recipient
I would add that sometimes medals appear to be awarded to co-opt the recipient. That is, to discourage him from revealing some embarrassing truth because it might diminish or refute his bravery medal. One definition of co-opt is, “To persuade an opponent to join one’s own side.”
I suspected in the Pat Tillman case that the Army posthumously awarded him a Silver Star and Purple Heart that he was not entitled to (because no enemy was involved) in the hope that the Tillman family would keep the friendly-fire nature of Tillman’s death quiet to preserve the public’s perception that he had heroically attacked the enemy in the incident. See my articles on the Tillman death and cover-up for more on that.
Another fact that Hackworth caused me to think of is the absence of witnesses. Roughly speaking, the more brave your actions, the fewer people there are to likely to be around to see them. It takes more bravery to act alone than to act with thousands of fellow soldiers or Marines around you.
Secondly, bravery is more likely to be engaged in by enlisted men and more likely to be witnessed by enlisted men. There is supposed to be one officer in a platoon of 40 men. In combat, the officer cannot be everywhere at once, visibility is usually reduced by vegetation and smoke and dust, and the officer is often killed, thereby leaving even fewer officers available for witnessing and documenting bravery.
Bravery by an enlisted man that is not witnessed and documented by an officer reminds me of the tree that falls in the forest about which the Zen question is asked: “If no one hears it, does it make a sound?” If gallantry is not witnessed and documented in writing by an officer, is it gallantry? Obviously it is, but in that circumstance, there is not likely to be a medal awarded.
The Swift Boat Veterans book about John Kerry, Unfit for Command, complained that he was awarded two Silver Stars based on self-documentation. That is, he was involved in an action, wrote an after-action report, and his superior, who was not present at the battle, wrote a recommendation that Kerry receive the Silver Star based on nothing but Kerry’s own after-action report. I cannot say it for sure happened that way.
Kerry and his Democratic supporters denounced the Swift Boat Vets up one side and down the other. But I must note that the Swift Boat Veterans were not a bunch of right wing nut cakes. They were the other swift boat officers who were Kerry’s colleagues in Vietnam. The swift boats operated in groups. So when Kerry did what he got the Silver Stars for, the Swift Boat Vets were on other boats yards away. I can believe that they shrugged off Kerry’s medals at the time but then were outraged that he would used them to try to win the presidency.
Regardless of whether you want to believe the Swift Boat Vets on Kerry, believe that officers do often get medals basically for recommending themselves in after-action reports.
Enlisted mutual recommendation
I do not mean to suggest that enlisted men are angels when it comes to medals. As a group, they have less power and less ability to game the system. They are also less benefited by medals than officers so they have less incentive to seek them. But to say they have less incentive does not mean they have no incentive. There are probably more enlisted men than officers who are in the military because of the action figure, hero image.
NCO’s, especially the higher ranking ones, are somewhat officer-like in taking care of Number One and each other. Also, many short-timer enlisted men are quite smart and articulate and shrewd and no doubt have gotten medals for themselves or their buddies by gaming the system.
Sometimes, enlisted men also like to get away with stuff, like get one of their number a medal without good reason, just for the fun of it.
Too many medals are probably awarded to non-infantry and non-armor branches like artillery and signal corps. Why? Ultimately, those officers compete with infantry officers for higher rank. Generals generally are considered to not be affiliated with a branch. Officers in branches like artillery and signal corps feel that their guys are at a disadvantage with infantry officers when competing for general rank, so they try to make sure their guys have as many bravery medals as the infantry guys.
Artillery and signal corps guys sometimes serve with the infantry. Artillery forward observers are quite entitled to some bravery medals. Each infantry battalion has a communications officer. I was a communications platoon leader in an infantry battalion in the 82nd Airborne Division. But the job description of the communications platoon leader is generally not one involving bravery. Unless you are getting overrun, by the enemy, you would be involved with batteries and repairs and antennas, not gallantry. A West Point classmate who was in the engineer branch said that combat engineers often accompanied the infantry when bunkers and such were expected. They, too, should not be suspect when winning bravery medals and they should get some sort of combat badge.
In October, 2009, I was surprised to learn that former VA head and U.S. Senator Max Cleland had more or less the same job that I did. He was a communications officer in an infantry battalion in the 1st Air Cav in Vietnam—same job I had in the 82nd Airborne and almost the same job I had in a mixed-heavy artillery battalion in Vietnam. He got a silver star in the Battle of Khe Sanh but received his famous injury—losing his right arm and both legs—at the hands of a stupid U.S. enlisted man who got the bright idea to loosen the pins on his grenades. (So he could throw them quicker?) One fell on the ground when they were getting out of a helicopter at a cold LZ (no enemy fighting go on) where he was to set up a radio relay station. The pin came out and the handle popped off starting the 4-second fuse burning. Cleland assumed it still had its pin in and bent over to pick it up. When his right hand was five inches from the grenade, it blew up.
A reader of this article told me the following in July, 2009:
Well, as of a few years ago, the US Army came out with the combat action badge (CAB) for non-infantry branches, and the qualifications for it are relatively the same (to my knowledge). -equivalent award.
Enlisted radio operators approach platoon leaders, company commanders, and medics in their extra exposure to enemy fire. They have to hang with the officers and they are conspicuous to the enemy by their equipment.
Again, I expect the incidence of Purple Hearts among artillery forward observers and communications platoon members would be similarly as high as among infantrymen. So awards of bravery medals to such non-infantrymen would not be suspect.
Once again, the number of Purple Hearts and bravery medals should be similar in any group. I suspect analysis would reveal that the branches other than infantry or armor have too many bravery medals in relation to their number of Purple Hearts.
There has also been plenty of evidence of racial discrimination in the awarding of medals including the CMH. Again, I would like to see a Freakonomics-style analysis of the awarding of Purple Hearts versus the awarding of heroism medals among minority military personnel. I suspect that minorities would have relatively more Purple Hearts than medals for heroism. The incidence of Purple Hearts and heroism medals ought to be roughly the same for all ranks and races. I doubt that it is.
I also suspect some minorities have gotten medals they did not earn on a sort of affirmative-action basis to preclude false charges of racial discrimination. On January 13, 1997, Democratic President Clinton, who got some 90% of the black vote in elections, presented Medals of Honor to the families of 6 deceased Black World War II heroes and one living hero, Vernon Baker. I do not know the merits of those cases, but I expect Washington DC is more receptive to awarding or upgrading medals to blacks who served in the past than to whites who served in the same wars.
An argument that blacks were discriminated against, which I agree with, proves my point. The medal should be awarded based on the actions of the man in question, not to fill a quota or to redress a disproportionately low number of awards. In 2004, Democratic party official Rodney Shelton said, "The black vote is absolutely critical to the Democratic vote," says Shelton. "We just can’t win without it." Accordingly, efforts by politicians, especially Democrats, to upgrade medal awards to blacks for actions that occurred in the distant past warrant great suspicion.
The only legitimate reason to upgrade such awards is new facts coming to light that reveal the wrong medal was awarded. Upgrading awards because of a general belief, or even evidence, that blacks were widely discriminated on back then cheapens the medals. A general disproportionately low number of medals being awarded to blacks should be dealt with by a general Congressional proclamation to that effect, not upgrading of the medals of particular personnel to fill a quota created by changes in racial sensitivities or Johnny-come-lately cynical ploys to garner minority votes.
Basically, you get the medal of honor for “gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States.” Not for getting a lesser medal while being black at a time when blacks were discriminated against in all things including medal awards.
People are agitating to get U.S. Navy sailor Dorie Miller the Medal of Honor for his actions during the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941. Amazingly, back then, the Navy used blacks as mess stewards in the officers ward room (dining room) on ships. Miller moved his mortally-wounded ship‘s captain to a first aid station on the ship then manned a .50-caliber machine gun and reportedly shot down five Japanese planes in spite of never having been trained to operate a machine gun.
I commend him. I apologize for the fact that the Navy treated blacks the way they did back then. The Army wasn’t much better, but they only put them in separate units. As far as I know, they did not generally use them as servants. I commend him for successfully using a weapon that he had not been trained to use. I further commend Miller for shooting down five planes. (assuming the kills were really his) If a U.S. fighter pilot does that, he is designated an “ace.”
But whether he earned the Medal of Honor that day would have to be taken up with the witnesses who were there and the officers who decided he should get the Navy Cross—the second highest medal for bravery after the Medal of Honor. They might remember that there was indeed discrimination against Miller and recommend the upgrading of his medal. Miller himself died later in World War II when his ship was sunk by a Japanese submarine.
In Miller’s case, the affirmative action campaign to get him the Medal of Honor actually started in 1941. The Secretary of the Navy at the time, Frank Knox, said Miller’s actions warranted the Navy Cross, not the Medal of Honor based on the specifics of the action and the wording of the Medal of Honor criteria. Generally, there was a lot of pressure from black groups and white politicians to award the CMH to Miller shortly after the incident happened. It is possible that Miller did not even deserve the Navy Cross, but got it because he was black to placate the clamor for decorating him.
The criteria for the Medal of Honor is “gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States.” Firing a machine gun an enemy planes may have been “above” Miller’s training and normal job title, but it was not above and beyond the call of duty for a U.S. Navy sailor to shoot at Japanese planes during the Pearl Harbor attack. All U.S. military personnel are trained in rifle marksmanship. Being a good shot does not warrant the CMH.
The standard for the Navy Cross is “extreme gallantry and risk of life in actual combat with an armed enemy force.” I have seen reenactments of Miller’s firing at the Japanese. The more recent the Pearl Harbor movie or documentary, the bigger deal is made of Dorie Miller. But all accounts say the same thing. There appears to be no dispute whatsoever about the facts of his case. He manned a .50-caliber machine on the deck of his ship, the battleship West Virginia, and blasted away at the Japanese planes until he ran out of ammunition.
I doubt the Japanese pilots knew he existed. Their mission was to sink ships, not to kill individual sailors. Plus when you’re flying around at 300 miles an hour it is hard to see individuals and what they are doing. Certainly no Japanese aviator could know Miller’s success rate during the battle. I would think the Navy Cross would be reserved for extraordinary actions like running into a burning engine room to get the engines restarted to ram an enemy ship or some such.
Shooting at the Japanese until they ran out of ammunition was what hundreds of U.S. military personnel were supposed to do and did do that day. I find it hard to see “extreme” gallantry in what Miller did. Rather, his actions matched the standard job description of a sailor operating a machine gun: point gun at enemy and pull trigger. Certainly, U.S. Navy sailors did that hundreds of thousands of times while under enemy fire during World War II, especially in the later stages when Japanese kamikaze planes were attacking U.S. ships in great numbers.. In those battles, there were probably 50 to 100 guys on each ship doing the exact same thing that Dorie Miller did at Pearl Harbor. If Dorie Miller deserves a CMH for that, so do all the others, of whatever race, who did the same thing in all those other battles.
Hollywood depictions notwithstanding, the enemy probably never fired at Miller as an individual. Crap was flying all over and being outside in an unprotected area that day at Pearl Harbor could get you hurt, but probably by stray bullets or fragments, not by a bullet aimed at you because you were firing a machine gun.
In the unlikely event that a Japanese plane was actually shooting directly at Miller as depicted in recent movies, I would rather have been in Miller’s position than the pilot’s. Think about it. Which is harder? Using a hand-aimed, swivel-mounted, .50 caliber machine gun shooting a tracer every fifth bullet while standing on a docked ship to knock down a 30-foot long, 5,300 pound, aluminum airplane with a 40-foot wingspan —or hitting a six-foot tall man on the crowded deck of a battleship with engine-cowl-mounted, fixed machine guns while flying a plane at 300 miles per hour?
I’m not saying it was not a courageous act. But there is a difference between shooting at an enemy who is shooting at you or your colleagues in a battle—standard, required behavior for all U.S. military personnel in all battles—and “extreme gallantry.”
With regard to his shooting down five Japanese planes, how does anyone know that? Fighter planes have gun cameras that film whenever the trigger is depressed. They film where the guns are aimed. In a dog fight where one plane is following another, the relative speed differential between the two may only be five or ten miles an hour. That makes the enemy plane move very slowly in relation to the American plane that is firing at him and its camera. But at Pearl harbor, there was no gun camera on a .50 caliber machine gun on a battleship deck. Plus, the planes were moving at 300 miles an hour relative to the Americans shooting at them from a standstill.
All hell was breaking loose. After they got over their initial shock and broke the locks on the ammunition storage rooms, the Americans were blasting away at the enemy with every available gun. How could anyone tell which American gun shot down which enemy plane? I doubt they could. I suspect Miller got credit for five planes not because he shot them down, but because more than that number were shot down generally at Pearl Harbor and because he was the only black guy shooting at them. Call it affirmative-action kill credit.
I am all in favor of awarding Miller the medal and kills he deserved, if any, but I do not care for all the agitation in his favor from black organizations and politicians. Any request to change Miller’s award should come only from witnesses to the action. No one else has any business getting involved. Racial and political organizations have no standing and have an obvious conflict of interest. Politicians, for example, may seek an upgrading of Miller’s medal to woo black votes.
The Combat Infantryman’s Badge (CIB) is not a medal per se, but I generally respect it. It is a sort of attendance medal, but the location where you have to be to get it is noteworthy—in combat with the enemy. Unlike many of the bravery medals, I suspect that comparison of the awards of Purple Hearts and the awards of the Combat Infantryman’s badges would correlate. That is, the share of the military’s Purple Hearts would be about the same as the share of CIBs in a group.
One complaint about the CIB is that it is only awarded to guys who are in the infantry branch. Some non-infantry guys, like radio-telephone operators, communications platoon members, combat engineers, and artillery forward observers are standing right next to the CIB winners and are crucial to their functioning. The other branches who assign members to infantry units should come up with their own combat signalman’s or combat artilleryman’s badges that have the same criteria as the CIB, only not including that the person must be in the infantry branch.
One guy who was in Desert Storm said everyone in his unit got one for essentially nothing. The war only lasted 100 hours. In Vietnam, I think you havd to be walking around in the boonies searching for and finding the enemy for six months or some such to get one. The Desert Storm guy said his fellow soldiers joked that CIB in their case stood for “Crossed Iraqi Border.”
As most people know or suspect, medals attract gloryhounds—guys whose goal is to get bravery medals. These guys are a hazard to themselves and to others.
John Kerry seemed to be one of those. He ended up with two silver stars and three purple hearts. It sounded to me like he was seeking medals for his future presidential campaign when he was in Vietnam.
In one case, he and another swift boat captain decided the next time they were attacked from the riverbank, they were going to run the boats right at the source of the attack, beach the boats, and change at the enemy like infantry. That is a bit ballsy. It was also not standard operating procedure for a Naval gun boat, but the element of surprise is a principle of war. However, I will point out that Kerry apparently put himself in for a Silver Star afterward via an after-action report that resulted in his superior recommending him for the Silver Star. And I will point out that the result could have been disastrous. Running a Navy vessel aground is one of the worst things a Naval officer can do in general. I believe it is a career-ending mistake with bigger boats. While it is easier to get a smaller vessel back off the beach or river bank when you do that, it is not a certainty.
The basic idea of a swift boat is that it is, well, swift. Boats, almost by definition, are very vulnerable to fire from land. The main defense for the swift boats in Vietnam was to maneuver and make themselves harder to hit. You cannot armor swift boats. They have to float and they have be be fast. Armor runs counter to each of those needs. Furthermore, boats are very vulnerable to perforation. Perforation below the water line lets water in. When a certain quantity comes in, the boat sinks. Any quantity slows the boat down thereby making it more vulnerable to enemy fire. When you run the boat aground, you expose the portion of the hull that is normally below the water line to enemy fire. If it takes a couple of significant below-water-line holes, the fact that the engine might be able to pull it off the bank is no longer relevant. You and your crew are stuck there. If the enemy force, the size of which Kerry could not have been sure of, had been large enough, and it would not have to be very large, Kerry, his boat, and his men would have been annihilated.
Also, Kerry in Vietnam made home movies, using a camera he bought at the Cam Ranh Bay BX, in which he reenacted his combat exploits including the beaching of his boat and charging onto the shore. In the film, he was dressed like a Hollywood infantryman not like the captain of a Navy boat.
He claims he did not do the grounding or reenactment filming for future campaign purposes. Anyone believe that? Me neither. Click here for an article about it.
If you simply volunteer yourself and only yourself for more dangerous locations and missions, which I do not recommend, I would say that’s a form of glory-seeking that can only hurt yourself. But if, when you are dangerous situations, you make them more dangerous and unnecessarily dangerous in your quest for medals, you are likely endangering the accomplishment of the mission and other U.S. military personnel around you.
People who have an extraordinary number of bravery medals should be viewed with some skepticism about their intentions if not the accuracy of the medal citations. Absent unusual circumstances or assignments, no one should have lots of bravery medals. Generally, anyone who tried to acquire an extraordinary number of bravery medals would be killed or severely wounded. The “most decorated soldier,” Col. David Hackworth in the second half of the Twentieth Century, was extremely lucky as much or more than he was brave. That is what you would expect and it is what he said in his autobiography About Face. The bravest soldier of that era probably died of combat wounds.
Of course, as reported in the book Stolen Valor, many of the men who claim to be highly decorated are total frauds. Either they were in Vietnam but did not earn the medals they claim or, in many cases, they were not even in the military or in a war.
You can see a photo of the current Marine Corps top officer General James T. Conway on the Internet at the Marine Corps Headquarters Web page. Click on the photo to enlarge it. As it shows, he has seven rows of ribbons.
The public probably figures, “What a combat hero!”
Let’s go through them one by one and see. His bio at the USMC HQ Web page says,
General Conway’s personal decorations include the Defense Distinguished Service Medal with palm, Navy Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Meritorious Service Medal with two Gold Stars, Navy Commendation Medal, Navy Achievement Medal and the Combat Action Ribbon.
Those are all non-combat, “good bureaucrat” medals with the possible exception of the “Combat Action Ribbon.” The Grunt Web site describes the Combat Action Ribbon thus,
Personnel who earned the Combat Infantryman Badge or Combat Medical Badge while a member of the Army may be authorized to wear the Combat Action Ribbon. The principal criterion is that the recipient must have participated in a bona fide ground or surface combat firefight or in an action during which he was under enemy fire and his performance while under fire was satisfactory.
Translated into plain English, the fact that Conway got that ribbon means he was present for a firefight and behaved as he was supposed to. He did not do anything heroic or extraordinary. In other words, it is a combat attendance ribbon, the equivalent of the Army Combat Infantryman’s Badge.
Conspicuous by their absence in all of his medals are Purple Hearts or any medals for bravery or gallantry in combat. Not that their absence means he is a bad guy. It’s just that one would think the Marine Corps would have lots of officers who had Purple Hearts and bravery medals and that one of those would be more likely to be promoted to their top job. They basically rejected their best combat heroes and gave their top job to their best bureaucrat. Not the impression I got from their recruiting commercials.
Also conspicuous by its absence is a Vietnam Service Medal. The guy is a year younger than I am. He was commissioned the year I was in Vietnam. Why did he not go to Vietnam? Why did the Marine Corps give their top job to a Marine who didn’t go to Vietnam when Marines who did are still on active duty?
Oh, and look at the second medal from the right on the third row from the bottom. That would be the “I was alive in ’65” medal—with two oak leaf clusters. Only Conway wasn’t alive in ’65. He was a student at Southeast Missouri State University that year. In his case, it must be the “I was alive in ’75, ’85, and ’95” medal. (Two oak leaf clusters mean he was awarded the National Defense Service Medal three times. His mom must be very proud.)
According to his Wikipedia bio, these are the medals of the current top Army general:
- Defense Distinguished Service Medal (with Oak Leaf Cluster)
- Distinguished Service Medal (with Oak Leaf Cluster)
- Legion of Merit (with 2 Oak Leaf Clusters)
- Defense Meritorious Service Medal
- Meritorious Service Medal
- Army Commendation Medal (with Oak Leaf Cluster)
- Army Achievement Medal (with Oak Leaf Cluster)
- Expert Infantryman Badge
- Master Parachutist Badge
- Parachutist Badge
- Ranger Tab
- Joint Chiefs of Staff Identification Badge
- Army Staff Identification Badge
Every single one of these is a “good bureaucrat” medal or a military training school graduation indicator. No Purple Hearts and no medals for bravery. Again, there are lots of guys in the Army officer corps who have Purple Hearts and bravery medals. You might think that the Army would prefer to promote those guys over pure bureaucrats. Nope.
I wrote about General John Abizaid at some length in my article on whether there is such a thing as military expertise. Here are the medals his Wikipedia bio says he got.
- Defense Distinguished Service Medal (with Oak Leaf Cluster)
- Distinguished Service Medal (with Oak Leaf Cluster)
- Defense Superior Service Medal
- Legion of Merit (with 5 Oak Leaf Clusters)
- Bronze Star Medal
- Defense Meritorious Service Medal
- Meritorious Service Medal (with 2 Oak Leaf Clusters)
- Army Commendation Medal (with 2 Oak Leaf Clusters)
- Army Achievement Medal
- Combat Infantryman Badge
- Expert Infantryman Badge
- Combat Parachutist Badge
- Ranger Tab
- Joint Chiefs of Staff Identification Badge
- Army Staff Identification Badge
Again, these are ALL “good bureaucrat” medals except for some Army school completion awards and the CIB which is a combat attendance medal. No Purple Hearts and no bravery medals in spite of the fact that many Army officers who could have been given the Centcom Commander position did have such medals.
I discussed this with one of my West Point classmates and he pointed out that bravery medals are generally won by junior officers up to majors and lieutenant colonels in infantry units and he noted that the current crop of big generals missed Vietnam. That would mean they would have had to get their bravery medals in Grenada (1983), Lebanon (1983), Panama (1989-90), Desert Storm (1991) or Blackhawk Down (1993). Since these guys were second lieutenants in the early 1970s, it would have been harder for them to win bravery medals because of the brief durations of the various combat actions after Vietnam and because they were higher rank in the 90s. On the other hand, part of the meaning of medals is that when there was action, you were where the action was.
Fair enough, but that makes another point I made in my article about whether there really is any such thing as military expertise. People keep saying that Bush should listen to the generals. Why? Where did they learn how to fight asymmetrical wars? Same place they earned medals for bravery in combat: nowhere.
And I think by parading around wearing seven rows of medals these guys are impersonating combat heroes because the public does not understand that most of those medals are for office work, not combat. I also think the generals show way too little humility about their knowledge of how to fight asymmetrical wars. For example, I do not hear any of them protesting the “Listen to the generals” line. The generals should say, “Hey! Don’t look at us. What do we know about winning these kinds of wars? We’re still trying to figure it out.”
Anyway, you can see the pattern here. The big brass, parading around in front of TV and other cameras with their rows upon rows of medals, are not the combat heroes the public assumes. Almost all their medals are suck-up medals for impressing a long succession of bureaucratic bosses. The awarding of medals in the U.S. military is now and long has been a scandal.
The 11/26/07 Army Times tells of an officer in the Army reserves who lied about receiving a bunch of awards and decorations and even what rank he was. According to Army records, he is a captain (OCS) and the only awards and decorations he earned were a Utah National Guard achievement medal, 2 Army reserve achievement medals, a National Defense Service Medal, an Army Service Ribbon, and airborne wings. He did a one-year tour in Iraq in 2005.
Here are the awards he actually wore for years and claimed in a faked military record file:
- Silver Star
- Special Forces Tab
- Ranger Tab
- Senior Parachutist badge
- Freefall Parachutists Badge
- Special Operations Diver Badge
- Humanitarian Service Medal
- Military Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal UN Medal
- Army Good Conduct Medal
- Southwest Asia Service Medal
- Combat Infantryman Badge
It is fairly common for civilians to falsely claim to be war heroes or higher rank than they actually were. But it is quite rare for someone on active duty to do it. This guy was on active duty. His fellow soldiers were suspicious. When they tried to see his military records, they never arrived. They turned him in. He pled guilty. Among other things, he managed to talk his way into getting paid as a major even though real military records authorized no such rank for him. He has not yet been sentenced.
Had such a person been in my unit, I would have asked him how he happened to attend so many black ops schools—especially since he was a mere National Guard or Reserve officer. Apparently that is the same thought his fellow soldiers had before they turned him in. Also, his Silver Star suddenly appeared late in 2006 long after he had returned from Iraq.
Emails from readers
Here is an email I got from a reader in January of 2008
V/R Jacob Turvey
Pretty typical, actually.
Here is one from 9/08:
I tend to concur with your evaluation of the military awards system. I may be considered a disgruntled riffed officer (passed over to RA Major), but I did go into the National Guard ten years after to get my 20 years as an E-5 (based on civilian acquired skills), needed about 5 years, and stayed until I was 60, in 1999, when they threw me out because of age, although I developed MS then, and couldn’t have continued. I loved the national guard and particularly the people in it. Most were honest, hard working souls who wanted to contribute and learn.
My real gripe about the awards system concerns the Distinguished Flying Cross. As a 3-tour army aviator, I cannot to this day see how some non-rated senior officer riding in a C & C helicopter over an military operation where there is enemy contact, can claim to be eligible and be awarded the DFC. Lots of the non-rated GO’s of the RVN era have them. What a travesty.
Regardless, I did retire as an O-4, am on 50% disability, and although I’m almost 69, am still working in a profession that I love, if only in the office and not the field.
Regards, Roger Smith
Here is another from 10/19/08
Your web page addressing the issue of whether some military personell really earned their medals was long overdue. When I was assigned as a combat engineer in Viet Nam in 1967 I quickly realized that there existed a marked disparity concerning who received awards. Although I did not actually have a combat MOS I was assigned to a security force and spent most of my time in the field. During a rocket attack in the TET offensive in 1968 I took shrapnel in my left arm from a 122mm rocket. Wasn’t really all that bad. I bandaged it and kept on with the mission. Later I was told by my platoon sergeant to keep my mouth shut about it because our commanding general didn’t like engineers receiving medals…he considered us non-combatants. (We were under II Field Forces) [Reed note: I was in II Field Force in Vietnam] What I came to find out later was that the unit officers had private ceremonies where they awarded each other medals. I’ve told other veterans about this, but the usual response is that I don’t know what I’m talking about. Thanks for setting the record straight.
And another from 5/25/09
I just want to let you know that I enjoyed reading your article on medals.
Having been an enlisted man in Vietnam, it amazed me that officers and senior NCO’s in our small unit took care of each other by getting their tickets punched with these medals. I was with a small military intelligence unit that was attached to the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. We had one 4-man track that was assigned to the combat units and spent some nasty time along War Zones C & D in the early part of 1970. We seldom had 4 people, but often operated with only 2 people in the field. We always had trouble getting support from the rear, including getting our mail, as nobody wanted to come out to the field. On May 1, we went into Cambodia. It took two weeks before it became a relatively secure situation.
The officers in our rear unit decided it was safe enough to come out to the field in Cambodia, have their picture taken with us, and then leave before nightfall to get back in time for happy hour. The tom-toms must have been beating, because for the next 10 days, all we got was a steady stream of day visitors from battalion, the large group units in Bien Hoa, and the Saigon officers from Ton Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon. They all got their photo ops. We still had work to do, but had to brief these guys and give them the Cook’s Tour.
I am sure that they all put themselves in for some kind of a medal when they got back to their safe havens. I wanted to get out of Cambodia, not because of the enemy, but because of these guys. After a while, the novelty wore off for them, and we got a chance to go back to normal and do our work. Oh, and by the way, nobody gave us any kind of medal or commendation. We really didn’t deserve one, as we got to see the guys of the 11th ACR get their tails in the ringer day after day, with no complaining. They were the real heroes.
Regards, Name witheld by writer’s request
Here’s another email I got 7/9/09:
With regard to medals, you wrote this:
"If the battalion commander liked an enlisted man, that enlisted man got an ArCom.
If the battalion commander did not like an enlisted man, that enlisted man only got a certificate of appreciation from the battalion."
Believe it or not, the awards situation got worse since those days. Although certificates are still popular, another medal worked its way onto the Army uniform. In 1981, the Army (and presumably the Navy; and by extension the Marine Corps) created their respective Achievement Medals (Army = Army Achievement Medal; AAM).
This one really takes the cake. It probably came about as a result of increasing numbers of soldiers in a peacetime military at that time. Therefore, to have more meat to throw at privates hungry for recognition and with nothing on their uniform except the Army Service Ribbon (given for completing basic training – also known as the gay pride ribbon for its resemblance to the gay pride flag), the AAM was created. It’s a lot cheaper than a pay raise.
When I was relatively new in the Army, I heard this and other attendance awards referred to as PCS awards. I thought it was a joke, but it was not. As you know, you get an award for when you do a permanent change of station (PCS) to another location after completing a regular garrison assignment. Depending upon what rank someone is, the award can be an AAM, ARCOM, MSM, etc. As a Specialist (formerly Spec 4), I got an AAM for leaving Korea and PCSing to Fort Bragg. Boy, did i feel like a hero (not!)
[Reed response: I love the phrase “PCS awards.” PCS means “permanent change of station” as the writer says. It means the man or woman in question is being sent to a different assignment at a different location. This happens an average of once a year to career military persons—far more often than it happens to civilians. Civilians who work in offices are constantly having little birthday parties and going-away parties for co-workers who are retiring or moving away or taking another job. The military does the same but they have to make a big deal out of any ceremony—including giving you a freaking medal for a routine rotation to a new job. So many of the medals you see on the chests of “decorated” career military pesonnel are nothing but the equivalent of the going-away mementoes at the we’ll-miss-you lunches that take place all over America daily. Imagine what civilian workers would look like if they kept all that junk and had it sewn onto their work clothes every day. Would we call them “highly decorated” desk “heroes?”]
Here is another email sent to me in the summer of 2009 from a 21st century West Point graduate who has done at least one tour in the Middle East and is still on active duty in his five-year indentured-servitude period.
I agree with most (I’d say about 95-100%) of what you have to say about the military in some of your articles I’ve read. As for other awards, you’re pretty much right on. The funny thing is that in the past few years in Iraq, some people in my unit while in Iraq (lifers of course) thought that bronze stars were being handed out like candy (if they were or were not deserved). So to fix that problem, the chain of command in my brigade/battalion established a set number of bronze stars/ARCOMs/etc. that could be awarded. Obviously, this did not fix the problem as you can imagine. All that did was it allowed all the field grade officers, company commanders, and sergeant majors to earn the award without allowing the more qualified, lower ranking, heroic soldiers to earn it. I was on a transition team (which is a team that advises and patrols with the Iraqi National Police/Army), and our team leader, a major, who spent hours on end browsing the internet in an air conditioned office and falling asleep on mounted patrols was the only one put in for the BSM while everyone else was put in for the standard AAM/ARCOM. So, essentially the same problem persisted. The only thing that happened was that the award structure altogether was downgraded. Generally, this is how awards were based in my infantry battalion during my tour in Iraq:
E1-E4: AAM (or certificate of appreciation if there was UCMJ action)
01-03: ARCOM (with the exception of company commanders)
04 and higher: BSM
It’s funny, yet also so sad, as to how the military has not changed much even since the time you were in during the 60s/70s (especially in regard to how screwed up it is).
Your stories of the ass-chewing sessions bring back memories of some of the lifers I’ve had to deal with these past few years. I’ll tell of one example. I was the intelligence trainer for our Iraqi National Police battalion, and our major ordered me to give them classified material on numerous occassions (obviously illegal if it is not releasable to the Iraqi government). I refused and was told that I did not have "initiative" and didn’t want "to get things done" in an ass-chewing fashion. Given that the INP was infiltrated so much with Mahdi militia and other anti-American insurgents, even if it was legal, it probably wasn’t a good idea anyway. That’s just one example, but the rest are very similar to the nonesense that you’ve experienced.
My last comment is about how West Pointers are treated. You touched on this in your medals article as well as several others. West Pointers are generally treated like crap by non-West Pointers in today’s army as well. I’ll tell of one example. On my first day at the basic course, our course manager walked in and the first words were, "I hate West Pointers. They are all pathetic, arrogant, and they are jerks. They are simply not team players." Now to put this in better context, West Pointers are generally put in the August and September courses. However, [we] were in the October course at the time, and this particular field grade officer said this not knowing there were going to be a few more West Pointers in this particular class (obviously, this major and others quickly found out from our files). So, the few of us rolled our eyes, and thought, wow, what a great first impression of [our] branch.
There are so many other problems that will continue to persist in the US Army, and there are so many more to mention. But that would be in a much larger, perhaps endless, email.
Here is a typical email I received in 2009:
John, please do not attribute these comments to me on your site. However, from one person to another, and as a Combat Veteran with two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star, and a Army Commendation Medal with Valor Device, I agree with much of what you say. I tell people over here who want "action" that they do not know anything about which they speak.
I can also tell you awards mean next to nothing. I spent a 15 months as a REDACTED Platoon Leader in one of the worst areas in Baghdad last deployment. I had to fight like a demon to get my Senior REDACTED awarded a Bronze Star. Now, I am in Corps HQ, and I see everyone (including staff workers and drivers) receiving them. It makes me pretty angry.
Thanks for your articles, I appreciate them. I graduated USMA in RECENT and will be transitioning out of the Army after I return from my current deployment.
I appreciate informed, well-thought-out constructive criticism and suggestions.
John T. Reed