The Joint Chiefs of Staff gathered for a meeting in the supersecret “tank” at the Pentagon, but the topic was not how to fight the war on terrorism. It was how to commend those who do the fighting.
The debate in 2005, according to senior defense sources, pitted the Army, Navy and Marine Corps against the Air Force. The Air Force planned to award two expeditionary awards — the Afghanistan Campaign Medal and the Iraq Campaign Medal — to any airmen who participated, even if they were based in the United States. The other three branches protested.
“The Air Force says that the box they’re fighting in is the globe,” a senior defense official said, explaining that the “box” is a theater of war, such as Iraq or Afghanistan.
“The other services say an expedition is to a piece of ground. It’s a box, and it’s not the globe,” said the official, who asked not to be identified.
In the end, the Joint Chiefs chairman and top Pentagon civilians ruled against the Air Force. The two medals would be confined to those who actually served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The debate illustrated how seriously the military takes the question of medals — who gets them and for what. The tank session also carried broader implications at the Pentagon. It previously had reviewed the four branches’ commendation policies and rules 10 years ago.
A sufficient number of questions arose about other medals that David Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel, set up a special task force to review rules for awarding 36 medals — everything from the Medal of Honor to the Antarctica Service Medal. The task force is expected to release its recommendations later this year.
Bill Carr, deputy undersecretary of defense for military personnel policy, said the goal is not to determine whether past awards were legitimate. Instead, the panel will review requirements to ensure there is as much uniformity as possible in the Department of Defense’s Manual of Military Decorations and Awards.
Mr. Carr said one thing is already clear. Except in one case, he has not seen any evidence of “medal inflation” — commanders handing out Bronze Stars or campaign medals under questionable circumstances.
“The objective is to reduce the differences, such that the presence of a medal on a chest means the same thing, or as close as we can get to it,” he said. “I think the troops probably care less about the qualifying circumstances as they do about the consistency.”
Mr. Carr said the panel might refine some standards while expanding others. Currently, for example, military personnel wounded by international terrorists are eligible for the Purple Heart. Hundreds received them after al Qaeda’s attack on the Pentagon on September 11. But the military victims of domestic terrorism, such as those killed in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, are not eligible.
Among the 168 dead in that bombing were two Marines at a recruiting office in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. The panel may decide to include those victims, too.
In addition to the interservice squabble over expeditionary medals, three other events prompted the Pentagon review:
The Air Force had awarded the Bronze Star, a medal normally associated with performing in a battle zone, to airmen in the United States for missions such as loading bombs onto planes.
“The Army didn’t like that, and neither did the Congress,” Mr. Carr said. Congress enacted a law in 2005 restricting the Bronze Star to personnel who work in a dangerous environment. “The Air Force had given a number of them to people who had performed valuable service, but it wasn’t in a dangerous environment,” he said.
Mr. Carr said this is the only case of “medal inflation” he has found since the war on terrorism began. “I would rate that as inflation because … Congress judged that it was inflationary.”
The Army awards the “V” device to add to such medals as the Bronze Star, to signify valor. But the Navy and Air Force have different standards. For the Navy, it means the sailor was in combat. For the Air Force, it denotes accomplishments while in harm’s way. Again, the Army is pushing for clarification.
The services follow different standards for a Purple Heart. The Army, for example, awards it for a concussion; the Marine Corps requires a severe concussion, as defined by a doctor.
Historians credit Napoleon with instituting the first system of awards to soldiers based on individual merit and valor, regardless of religion or social background. He created the Legion of Honor, a cross and eagle ensemble he wore proudly. It has survived all the French republics.
When critics questioned the worth of handing out awards, Napoleon was quoted as saying: “We call these children’s toys, I know; it’s been said already. Well, I replied that it’s with such toys that one leads men.”
The motivation for awarding decorations has not changed much in the 200 years since.
“It’s central to the sustainment of a sound military ethos,” Mr. Carr said. “In other words, the military tradition and passion and value system. It is very substantially operated by the military to perpetuate that ethos and that value system and pass it along to generations.”
The Pentagon is paying such close attention to what personnel wear on their chests because it goes to the heart of being a warrior. In a sense, the decorations are a quick-read service record. The multicolored ribbons and shiny medals tell colleagues where the person has been, whether he saw combat, his bravery and his wounds. Wearing an unauthorized or questionable ribbon is considered a serious offense.
In 1996, Navy Adm. Jeremy “Mike” Boorda, while chief of naval operations, drove from the Pentagon to his Navy Yard compound for lunch. There, he fatally shot himself. He had learned the press was questioning his wearing of the “V” device, indicating he had been in combat, on Vietnam service ribbons. Adm. Boorda, who served on ships off the coast of Vietnam, was scheduled to answer questions that afternoon with Newsweek reporters.
A factor in Sen. John Kerry’s election loss to President Bush in 2004 was the medals he won in Vietnam. A group of fellow swift-boat sailors wrote a book questioning the truthfulness of the medal citations. Mr. Kerry ignored the accusations for weeks before finally defending his war service and decorations. Political pundits said the delay cost him votes.
“It is critical to a military member’s credibility that he wear only the medals he is entitled to wear and which are documented in his or her service record,” said Charles Gittins, a former Marine aviator whose law practice specializes in military law. He said knowingly wearing an unearned medal is a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. A conviction can bring a maximum sentence of six months in jail on each violation.
Retired Army Lt. Col. Charles Krohn, a Vietnam combatant who earned the Silver Star for heroism, the service’s third-highest award, for his service in the 1968 Tet Offensive, said there were charges of “medal inflation” during that long war. But, in reality, commanders faced such large casualty rates and reviewed so many acts of heroism that it was difficult to make the charge stick.
“I can tell you in my battalion in Vietnam during a six-week period we had 11 Distinguished Service Crosses awarded,” Mr. Krohn said of the Army’s second-highest award. “I think every one was deserved because of the horrendous casualties we took.”
In most every conflict, medal inflation is suspected in the awarding of the Bronze Star. It is a recognition of someone operating under tough conditions, which surely fits just about all military personnel sent to Iraq and Afghanistan.
“If I was a commander, I would be very liberal in awarding Bronze Stars to soldiers who operated well in a very difficult and dangerous environment,” Mr. Krohn said. “At the lower levels, it recognizes a soldier’s contribution to the war effort, and families are proud when their sons and daughters are recognized with medals, higher or lower.”
Like Mr. Carr, the four branches maintain there is no medal inflation in the war on terrorism.
“The Marine Corps relies on experienced operational commanders … to carefully weigh the Marines’ actions against established criteria,” said Lt. Col. Jim Taylor, the Corps’ assistant branch head for awards. “This time-tested review process maintains the consistency and integrity of all awards.”
The Corps is the only service so far to change the standards for an award based on fighting a new kind of enemy — one who uses atypical methods to attack American troops. In this case, the method is the improvised explosive device (IED), a roadside or car-borne bomb that has killed and injured thousands of U.S. fighters.
The secretary of the Navy changed requirements for the Combat Action Ribbon, created in 1969, to include exposure to an IED explosion. A message to Marines said the change stemmed from the “evolution of warfare and the realities of the modern battlefield.”
The change was made retroactive to Oct. 7, 2001, when a U.S. led-coalition invaded Afghanistan.
Virtually everyone up the chain of command — from a platoon leader to a service secretary to the defense secretary — has a say in awards, depending on the medal. Final approval for the Bronze Star for sailors in Iraq and Afghanistan stops at the commander of naval forces, U.S. Central Command. A Navy Cross, the second-highest award after the Medal of Honor, is approved by the Navy secretary.
The other branches follow similar medal routes. The top Air Force general at Central Command may approve Distinguished Flying Crosses, Bronze Stars and other lower medals. Higher awards, such as the Air Force Cross and Silver Star, must be reviewed by the Air Force Decorations Board before final approval by the Air Force secretary.
“In order to combat inflationary pressures that might occur, the Air Force has well-established procedures in place to guard against that tendency,” said Capt. David Small, an Air Force spokesman at the Pentagon.
The Army, too, said it has safeguards built into the awards system. The process begins with commanders in the war zone, who must review reports of potentially heroic feats and potential eyewitnesses, then decide which medal to recommend.
“The commander on the ground is the one who must make the call on what level award is given to a soldier,” said Lt. Col. Kevin Arata, a spokesman on personnel issues. “The commanders are the ones best fit to recognize their efforts and validate their actions justifying each award.”
At a farewell press briefing Dec. 8 before he gave up his command, Army Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli left reporters with a tale of heroism. Gen. Chiarelli told the story of an unnamed soldier, a gunner on a Humvee, who saw a grenade tossed inside the truck. He yelled grenade and began to jump out of the vehicle, as per his training. But his combat buddies didn’t hear, or misunderstood.
“In a singular act of heroism, this soldier, who was halfway out of the truck, dropped back into the truck and placed his body against that grenade, thereby saving the lives of the four other individuals that were inside that truck,” said Gen. Chiarelli, until recently the No. 2 U.S. officer in Iraq.
Other commanders and the press have documented hundreds of heroic actions in Iraq and Afghanistan during the past five years. Yet, the Bush administration, to date, has awarded just two Medals of Honor, the nation’s highest military award.
To some veterans, it is a signal that the Pentagon is too timid in approving the award. They point out that the 1993 conflict in Somalia, where U.S. troops fought only one major urban battle, produced two Medals of Honor, the same number as five years of fighting in Afghanistan and nearly four in Iraq.
“Some commanders think the Army in the past was too generous in awards and, therefore, established very severe standards, which is their prerogative because it’s a commander’s decision whether or not a soldier gets recommended, and I think that makes sense,” Mr. Krohn said. “We would never want a universal standard that was too specific.”
Rep. John M. McHugh, New York Republican and former chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on military personnel, said he is troubled by the fact that since the end of the Vietnam War, presidents have awarded only four Medals of Honor — all posthumously. Nearly half the recipients in World War II survived the action.
“I am concerned that the military services recently may have introduced more stringent criteria onto the Medal of Honor awards process than has existed in the past,” Mr. McHugh said at a hearing in December.
Michael L. Dominguez, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, called the evaluation process “exacting, as no award of a Medal of Honor should ever be open to criticism.”
“We must get it right the first time,” he said. It is the only award that requires approval by the secretary of defense and the president.
It is difficult to compare wars. Each involved different numbers of troops, lengths of time and enemy tactics. For the 12-year Vietnam War, the Pentagon approved 245 Medals of Honor, an average of 20 a year. But Vietnam required far more troops and constant, intense fighting, during which more than 58,000 Americans died. In Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. troops are typically fighting in smaller units against ambushes, suicide bombers and planted bombs.
“Those who compare valor awards from conflict to conflict must understand that the changing nature of warfare from large force-on-force battles to asymmetric warfare against small bands of insurgents … does not necessarily support a direct comparison,” Mr. Dominguez said.
At its peak, the Vietnam War commanded more than 500,000 troops. The Afghanistan-Iraq wars average about 160,000 on any given day.
On April 4, 2003, Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith was part of a 3rd Infantry Division unit that was building a holding cell for prisoners of war near Baghdad International Airport. Suddenly, his three dozen men came under attack by a company-size Iraqi force that hurled in mortar fire and grenades.
“Sergeant First Class Smith braved hostile enemy fire to personally engage the enemy with hand grenades and anti-tank weapons and organized the evacuation of three wounded soldiers from an armored personnel carrier hit by enemy fire,” his citation read. “In total disregard for his own life, he maintained his exposed position in order to engage the attacking enemy force. … During this action, he was mortally wounded.”
President Bush posthumously awarded Sgt. Smith the Medal of Honor in April 2005.
“Sergeant Smith manned a 50-caliber machine gun atop a damaged armored vehicle,” Mr. Bush said. “From a completely exposed position, he killed as many as 50 enemy soldiers as he protected his men.”
On Thursday, the morning after telling the nation his new strategy for Iraq, Mr. Bush awarded the war on terrorism’s second Medal of Honor. Again, the award was posthumous.
Marine Corps Cpl. Jason Dunham, 24, and his rifle squad were on patrol in a town near the Syrian border in April 2004 when he was attacked by an Iraqi insurgent. In hand-to-hand fighting, the Iraqi insurgent dropped a grenade. Cpl. Dunham fell on top of it, using his Kevlar helmet to block the blast. Cpl. Dunham, a native of upstate New York, died of his wounds eight days later at the National Naval Medical Hospital in Bethesda.
“By his selflessness, Corporal Dunham saved the lives of two of his men, and showed the world what it means to be a Marine,” Mr. Bush said at a White House ceremony.
As for the unnamed hero mentioned in Gen. Chiarelli’s press conference, the military later identified him as Army Pvt. 1st Class Ross A. McGinnis, 19, an amateur mechanic from Knox, Pa. He was quickly awarded the Silver Star.
“He had time to jump out of the truck,” the military quoted Sgt. 1st Class Cedric Thomas as saying. “He chose not to.”