Why Combat Decorations Are So Screwed Up Today – and How to Begin Fixing It

| February 28, 2013

It’s common knowledge that there are serious issues with military combat decorations.  To most civilians, this seems to be a minor issue.  But as anyone in the military knows, to folks in uniform this is indeed a big deal.  Inequity in awards is at the least a morale killer, and at worst can kill a unit’s faith in its chain-of-command – and thus seriously degrade its effectiveness.

I’ve done a bit of thinking about the situation over the past few months.  And since you’re reading this, well, you probably already have figured out that I’m about to wax soporific on the subject.  (smile)

I don’t personally think the situation is FUBAR at this point.  But things are IMO seriously out-of-whack; corrections are needed.  I also think I have a few decent suggestions as to how to improve the situation.   They don’t constitute a perfect solution, but they should IMO improve the current situation substantially.

Anyway:  that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. (smile)


I won’t attempt to detail all the known “gripes” about combat decorations today.  A partial list:

  1. Decorations are rank-preferential
  2. Decorations are awarded inconsistently in different units and services
  3. Combat service is not properly recognized
  4. Noncombat service is improperly recognized with combat decorations
  5. Favoritism in award of decorations

There are, of course, many others.

IMO, many of these gripes are based on reality; some are at least partly perception.  In some cases there is a reasonable explanation, while in other cases it’s simply due to abuse of the system.  My purpose here is to identify some of the factors that have contributed to this situation – and to suggest how to reduce the magnitude of the problem.

As my background is Army, I’m going to discuss this from the perspective of Army decorations and practices.  Fair warning:  this article is kinda long.

Reason #1:  Most Decorations are Multiple-Use

One reason that there is frustration over combat decorations is due to the fact that the vast majority of military decorations are truly “Swiss army knives”.  That is, most decorations can be used multiple different ways to recognize various types of outstanding performance.

By “decorations”, I am referring to personal decorations awarded for outstanding performance or acts; examples are the Silver Star and an Achievement Medal.  The discussion which follows excludes campaign, expeditionary, and service medals, as well as the Purple Heart and (for the Army) combat badges.  Criteria for these latter items are relatively “binary” – one either qualifies or not for the badge or medal in question based on specific circumstances or criteria.  In contrast, a personal decoration for outstanding performance is awarded at the discretion of the chain-of-command and involves a commander’s judgment.

Service or Achievement

Most personal decorations (Achievement Medal and up) are “multiple use” in two distinct ways.   The first is whether the award is granted for performance over time (for “service”) or for the performance of a specific act or acts (for “achievement” or for “heroism” – which is a specific type of act).   Indeed, surprisingly few personal decorations are truly single-purpose in this respect.  In the Army, there are only four:  the Medal of Honor (MoH), the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC), the Silver Star (SS), and the Soldier’s Medal (SM).  Each of these decorations is awarded only for specific acts of heroism.

All other decorations – including all of the Defense decorations, such as the Defense Meritorious Service Medal (DMSM) and Joint Service Commendation Medal (JSCM) – can be awarded for either service or a single act or achievement (and in some cases, for valor as well).   This dual nature of most awards – e.g., they can be either for a single act or for service over a period of time, and sometimes for heroism – leads to some degree of confusion as to their meaning.

Combat or Noncombat

The second point of confusion comes from the fact that, while there are theoretically combat and peacetime decorations, there is not now and has never been a particularly clear distinction between the two.   Some decorations are very obviously awarded only for acts performed during armed action against the enemy– but it’s a short list.  In the Army, there are precisely three such awards:  the MoH, the DSC, and the SS; a fourth, the SM, is awarded only for noncombat heroism.  All of the other personal decorations may be awarded for acts that do not involve personal participation in combat.

The situation got even more confused circa 2004 due to changes in policy allowing formerly prohibited noncombat decorations (in the Army, the MSM and AAM) to be awarded in a combat zone.  That policy change allowed the MSM and AAM to be awarded for service in a combat zone, retroactive to 11 September 2001 – but only for service that can legitimately be characterized as “noncombat service”.  The result has been even more confusion (as well as more dissatisfaction and perceived and/or actual inequity) regarding just how to appropriately recognize combat service.

Bogus Current Combat Zone Designations

Another major contributor to the current problems with recognition of combat service is the fact that, bluntly, many of our current combat zone designations are . . . well, bull.  “Combat zone” – technically hostile fire pay/imminent danger pay zone – implies ongoing active hostilities and a bona fide threat to one’s life/health due to enemy action.  On that basis, many of our current combat zones simply don’t qualify.

Prior to the 1990s, DoD’s declaration of combat zones appeared to make some degree of sense.  A combat zone was declared for a particular war or operation, or for a more limited area where there were ongoing sporadic hostilities (e.g., Korean DMZ).  When hostile circumstances no longer applied, the Combat Zone designation was revoked.  Only a few (Iran since 1979, Colombia since 1985, Afghanistan since 1988) seemed to drag on open-ended – and there appeared to be a good reason for those few.

We seem to have quit doing that in the 1990s.  The combat zone declared for Desert Shield/Desert Storm is essentially still in effect, and has been since 1990. It covers huge areas where no significant hostilities have occurred for in some cases over 20 years.

Here are the current hostile fire/imminent danger pay designations, along with the dates they were so declared:

  • Afghanistan Land area and airspace. Nov 1, 1988
  • Algeria Land area. Mar 7, 1995
  • Arabian Peninsula and adjacent sea areas that includes:  The surface area of the following sea boundaries: Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, Gulf of Oman, and Arabian Sea north of 10°00’N latitude and west of 68°00’E longitude. Sep 19, 2001  (See also: Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Yemen )
  • Azerbaijan Land area. Jun 9, 1995
  • Bahrain Land area and airspace. Jun 13, 1997
  • Burundi Land area. Nov 29, 1996
  • Chad Land Area. Aug 11, 2008
  • Colombia Land area. Jun 1, 1985
  • Congo, Democratic Republic of (formerly Zaire) Land area. Jan 1, 1997
  • Cote D’Ivoire Land area. Feb 27, 2003
  • Cuba Limited to Service Members performing duties within the Joint Task Force Guantanamo Bay Detention Facilities. Dec 26, 2006
  • Djibouti Land area. Jul 31, 2002
  • East Timor Land area Nov 1, 2001
  • Egypt Land area. Jan 29, 1997
  • Eritrea Land area. Jul 31, 2002
  • Ethiopia Land area. Sep 13, 1999
  • Greece Land area within a 20-km radius from the center of Athens (38-01 N, 23-44 E). Mar 27, 2007
  • Haiti Land area. Nov 23, 1994
  • Indonesia Land area Oct 31, 2001
  • Iran Land area. Nov 4, 1979
  • Iraq Land area and airspace. Sep 17, 1990
  • Israel Land area. Jan 31, 2002
  • Jordan Land area. Jan 29, 1997
  • Kenya Land area. July 31, 2002
  • Kosovo Land area and airspace June 22, 1992
  • Kuwait Land area and airspace. Aug 6, 1990
  • Kyrgyzstan Land area. Sep 19, 2001
  • Lebanon Land area. Oct 1, 1983
  • Liberia Land area. Aug 6, 1990
  • Libya Land area and airspace. Mar 19, 2011
  • Malaysia Land area. Oct 31, 2001
  • Mediterranean Sea Water area of the Mediterranean Sea extending from the North African Coast northward into Mediterranean Sea, bounded on the east at 26° 00’ E longitude, extending north to 34° 35’ N latitude, extending west to the East Coast of Tunisia. Mar 19, 2011
  • Montenegro Land area and airspace. Jun 22, 1992
  • Oman Land area. Sep 19, 2001
  • Pakistan Land area. Nov 29, 1996
  • Philippines Land area. Oct 31, 2001
  • Qatar Land area and airspace. Aug 7, 1997
  • Rwanda Land area. Oct 6, 1997
  • Saudi Arabia Land area and airspace. Aug 2, 1990
  • Serbia Land area and airspace (includes the province of Vojvodina) Jun 22, 1992
  • Somalia
    Somalia Basin (1) Land area and airspace. Sep 28, 1992
    (2) Water area of the Somalia Basin with coordinates: 1110N3-05115E2, 0600N6-04830E5, 0500N5-05030E8, 1130N5-05334E5; and 0500N5-05030E8, 0100N1-04700E1, 0300S3-04300E7, 0100S1-04100E5, 0600N6-04830E5.  Dec 26, 2006
  • Sudan Land area and airspace. Oct 4, 1993
  • Syria Land area. Jul 31, 2003
  • Tajikistan Land area. Mar 31, 1997
  • Tunisia Land area and airspace. Mar 19, 2011
  • Turkey Land area, excluding the Turkish Straits (i.e., the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara, and the Bosporus Straits) and including the limited airspace south of 37-45N and east of 43-00E. Mar 1, 1998
  • Uganda Land area. Jan 19, 2000
  • United Arab Emirates (UAE) Land area. Sep 19, 2001
  • Uzbekistan Land area. Sep 19, 2001
  • Yemen Land area. May 25, 1999
  • Yugoslavia, Federal Republic of: see also Montenegro and Serbia
    Land area and airspace of the Republics of Montenegro and Serbia.
    Jun 22, 1992

Unless I’ve miscounted, that’s 49 countries (giving Somalia the benefit of the doubt) plus some designated areas at sea.  Yes, most of them are pretty nasty places.  And some of them deserve the designation and probably should remain hostile fire/imminent danger pay locations.

But all of them?  IMO, not only no – but hell no.

Since 1991, the only combat zone/quasi-combat zones I know of that have ended are the Bosnia/Croatia/Macedonia quasi-combat zone (1995-2007) and the eastern Mediterranean (apparently recently; I cannot find the exact date it ended, but as of last year it still qualified).  All of the others are still active – whether or not there are any significant ongoing hostilities involving the US.  Oh, and I especially like the Guantanamo Bay (but only those assigned to the detention facility) declaration.  Must be a lot of shooting going on at that detention facility!

The reason for this appears fairly easy to discern:  DoD wanted to reward troops for deployment with tax benefits.  Plus, supporting the troops was also politically popular and played well with Congress – who funds DoD.  So the end result is that combat zones today never seem to end, even when hostilities do.   This contributes to the next problem:  a blurring between combat and noncombat service.

Blurred Distinctions Between Combat and Noncombat Service

As noted above, faux combat zones contribute to the blurring between combat and noncombat service.  IMO, the distinction seems pretty simple and based on common sense.  If you’re carrying a weapon and ammo with you at all times and facing a realistic risk of being shot at by an enemy on a daily basis, then you are serving in combat.  If you’re not doing both of those, you’re not serving in combat – no matter how nasty the assignment.  Facing a bona fide risk of being engaged by the enemy is what makes the difference.

However, that situation is the case in only some parts of today’s designated combat zones.  In other parts of the “combat zone”, weapons are not routinely carried at all and there is effectively zero threat of hostilities.  But people serving in either part of today’s combat zones remain technically eligible to receive “combat” decorations.

A second issue that has confused the issue is the extended reach provided by modern technology.  During previous conflicts, to provide direct support for troops in combat meant being in a bona fide combat zone yourself – and thus being personally at risk to some degree.  That is no longer the case.  Effective and (in some cases) real-time support can often now be provided from literally thousands of miles away – e.g., from the safety of an air-conditioned office in CONUS.

This first became an issue during the 1999 Kosovo BSM fiasco.  At that time, award of the BSM did not explicitly require service in a combat zone per se – it merely required service performed “in connection with” combat operations.  Numerous USAF and USN support personnel in CONUS/Germany/Italy were awarded the BSM in conjunction with operations in Kosovo.  This perceived abuse of the BSM led directly to the inclusion in the 2001 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of a legal requirement to be receiving hostile fire pay/imminent danger pay to receive a BSM.  That prohibition is today specified in Federal law at 10 USC 1133.  The recent creation of that abomination called the Distinguished Warfare Medal (DWM) ranking higher in precedence than the BSM seems to be yet another manifestation of this same type of abuse of military combat decorations.

(Author’s note:  the link in the above paragraph has been changed to lead to an expanded, later article I wrote on the subject vice the  references I originally used.  Those original references are now linked in the new article.)

Unfortunately, the new statutory requirement led to additional issues.  During 2001-2004 because of the expansive (and IMO, bogus) designation of much of the Middle East as a “combat zone”), many personnel in Qatar, Kuwait, and other secure areas in-theater having no ongoing enemy hostilities were awarded BSMs.  This happened for two reasons:  first, the equivalent peacetime decoration, the Meritorious Service Medal (MSM), could not at that time be awarded in a combat zone.  Second, the designation of virtually the entire Middle East as a combat zone irrespective of the absence of local hostilities meant that the only suitable decoration available to recognize MSM-level performance for these individuals was the BSM (until 2004, the MSM could not be awarded in a combat zone).   A secondary effect in the Army was a de facto “ARCOM or nothing” policy for end of tour awards in-theater at the low end, since the Army Achievement Medal could also not be awarded for combat service.

DoD and the services attempted to rectify this policy in 2004 by allowing award of peacetime decorations in a combat zone for service that could legitimately be considered “noncombat service”, retroactive to Sep 2001.  The intent clearly was to allow personnel serving in areas without any significant risk of enemy action to be recognized appropriately.

Predictably, this in turn led to additional inequities and problems.  Some units began to add additional, non-regulatory local criteria for the award of the BSM vice an MSM instead of using the specified “combat service/noncombat service” criteria.  Indeed, the practice was widespread in 2008; I have personal knowledge of no less than 2 cases of individuals in Iraq who were awarded a CAB but nonetheless received an MSM as an end-of-tour award.  (Reputedly there were many other cases, but I only have personal knowledge of two specific instances.)  In that unit, apparently combat meant something other than being engaged by or engaging the enemy and local policies overrode Army guidance.

Rank, Favoritism, Misunderstanding, and Blatant Misapplication of Existing Policy

There is also substantial perceived disparity regarding the connection of awards and rank.  Part of this is perception.  Awards for service tend to be higher for personnel having higher rank for a reason:  their positions have larger responsibility and scope, and their performance thus has a more significant impact (for better or worse) on mission accomplishment.  Couple that with the multipurpose nature of most military decorations and the increasingly blurred lines between combat and noncombat decorations, and the result is substantial perceived disparity based on rank.  Some of that disparity may be due to other factors, but it’s IMO mainly due to this reason.  Really:  how many E3s or E4s do MSM-level work during a tour of duty during peacetime?  (Remember – absent a “V” device, the BSM awarded for service is the wartime equivalent of an MSM.)

In theory, awards for heroism should not be so affected.  However, in actual practice there is IMO likely some smaller degree of rank linkage there as well.  That should not be the case – an individual heroic act is rank-neutral – but reality seems to state otherwise, at least to some degree.

Finally, favoritism exists and in some units appears common.  We learn early in life that favoritism exists, generally when we start school and see our first “teacher’s pet”; and I’d guess we’ve all seen some awards to HQ types that seemed . . . inflated when compared to those in units.  Unfortunately, favoritism is a part of human nature and will probably never be completely eliminated; it also affects combat awards in some units.  One unit in Kuwait of whom I have knowledge was known to grant “selected personnel” BSMs for HQ duty in Kuwait, while forward-deployed personnel in subordinate units in Iraq and Afghanistan often were awarded MSMs vice BSMs.  It is reputed that nonstandard “local criteria” played a part in this practice, but IMO favoritism was also a big part of the problem.

How to Improve the Situation

Completely fixing the situation is likely impossible – because no human endeavor is or will ever be perfect.  However, I have a few common-sense (to me) recommendations that IMO will restore a modicum of sanity and credibility to combat decorations while reintroducing a much-needed degree of separation between combat and noncombat decorations.

Enforce Existing Service Policies.

Most service award policies and regulations, as written, are decent and appear to rather clearly specify the level of performance which warrants a given award.  The problem largely lies in local implementation, which is non-uniform, highly uneven, and at times highly blatantly inequitable.

In particular, the existence and use of a command “award philosophy” as an unauthorized regulatory supplement to impose additional criteria for awards appears to be a significant practice, as do “unwritten” local rules and awards practices.  Most if not all services forbid local supplementation of their award regulations without explicit approval from the service.  This should be strictly enforced, and should be an item of interest for all GO/FO commanders – including an examination of award statistics vis-a-vis actual physical duty locations of recipients for combat awards.

People should get the award they rate – if any – based on their performance.  What they get should not depend grossly on their unit of assignment or on some nonstandard locally-imposed additional criteria.

Work to Harmonize Service Practices Regarding Awards

Services have different reputations for “stinginess” regarding awards, and use certain awards and devices differently.  While perfect harmony between the services is a pipe dream, the current degree of disparity appears simply too extreme.  As an example:  the “V” device means three different things, depending on whether awarded by the Army (denotes only valor in combat), the Navy/USMC (personal exposure to combat risk, but not necessarily valor in combat), or the USAF (either of the above, depending on the decoration – or on unit decorations it means that the unit performed commendably while supporting combat operations in a combat zone).  The “V” device is also used on different decorations by the Army (BSM, AM, ARCOM), Navy/USMC (LOM, DFC, AM, BSM, NCOM, NAM), and USAF (BSM, AFCOM, AFAM, unit decorations).  Perhaps a joint working group could help harmonize the services in these areas, plus on awards in general.  Or maybe this is the proverbial “bridge too far”.

Terminate Bogus Combat Zones

This is probably the biggest single change that could be made to restore sanity to the current situation.  Bluntly:  most of the CENTCOM AOR and many other locations worldwide should lose their current designation as combat zones, service in which enables receipt of a combat decoration.  Today, many areas worldwide where there are no ongoing hostilities – including most of the Middle East and/or Central Asia where the risk of hostile engagement is effectively zero and has been for years – are designated a hostile fire/imminent danger pay areas.  That should change.  Now.

FRY and designated waters/airspace should immediately lose their designation as de facto Combat Zones.  These missions should end (they’ve long outlived their need).  And we need to close out the eligibility for the damned Kosovo campaign medal, too.  I also don’t see the need for the continuing designation for Rwanda, Burundi, and a quite few other nations/areas, either.

We should also end the “Combat Zone” designation for most of the CENTCOM AOR (the entire CENTCOM AOR should IMO remain designated as hardship duty locations).  Based on published reports, the only places I am aware of in the CENTCOM AOR having active and ongoing hostilities involving US forces are Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and possibly Yemen (published reports indicates the US supports the Yemeni government against active terrorist organizations in various ways and that a credible threat exists there).  Djibouti and/or waters adjacent to Somalia probably also would qualify for designation as an “imminent danger pay” area.  A case could possibly also be made to retain Imminent Danger Pay designation for parts of Persian Gulf near Iran and/or Pakistan (I’d suggest 50km from the coast, but a different limit might be apropos – I don’t have a naval background) and the Kuwait-Iraq border area (e.g., that part of Kuwait within 10km of border).  The rest of the CENTCOM AOR doesn’t appear to have any ongoing active hostilities and therefore simply no longer legitimately rates designation as a combat zone.  The GWOTEM area of eligibility also should be reduced accordingly, removing of the CENTCOM AOR except for the areas listed above from those designated as qualifying for the GWOTEM; ditto for all other areas losing combat zone status.  Not every deployment qualifies as “expeditionary service” and thus an expeditionary medal.  Expeditionary service requires a bona fide risk of being engaged by hostile forces.

DoD should also make it standing policy that combat-zone designations automatically end when there hasn’t been a significant level of hostile activity in a given country or area within a year.  And “significant level” here doesn’t mean “one or a few incident(s)” – it means a pattern of documented hostile activity directed against US and allied forces that is having a material effect on US/allied operations and is and causing a ongoing casualties or material damage to US/allied forces, installations, and equipment.   We had occasional hostile incidents in Europe during the Cold War.  We didn’t declare Europe a combat zone – because there wasn’t an ongoing and significant pattern.  Ditto for most of Korea after the Korean War – only those portions where hostilities were likely (such as DMZ service) were so designated.   And even that appeared to have ended in Korea by the early 1980s.

Reintroduce the Former Prohibition on Exclusively Peacetime Awards in a Combat Zone

This would mean explicitly ending the award of MSMs or DMSMs for service in combat zone, reverting to pre-2004 policy.  The effect would be to bring sanity to the confused BSM/MSM situation currently seen in some units.  The Army should also re-designate the AAM as a dual-purpose decoration (combat or noncombat) and authorize the “V” device for the AAM if/when conditions warrant.  This would allow appropriate recognition for those performing AAM-level work in a combat zone without the necessity to “cheapen” the ARCOM.

A related issue would be to figure out how to rectify the dual inequities of both “cheapie” BSMs for service in bogus combat zones (e.g., Qatar/most of rest of CENTCOM AOR and Kuwait post-2004) as well as the situation for those who served in bona fide combat zones and got shorted (e.g., received an MSM for combat service in Iraq or Afghanistan).  The World War II CIB conversion provides a possible partial pattern for such an effort regarding taking care of those who were screwed by their former units while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.  Less clear is how to handle the issue of the “cheapies”.  A possible way to handle the latter might be to require evidence of either entitlement to a combat badge (CIB/CMB/CAB) or eligibility for a campaign medal (ACM or ICM, potentially after demonstrating eligibility for conversion from GWOTEM) to retain a BSM awarded in the CENTCOM AOR after 2004, and otherwise convert the decoration to an MSM to appropriately recognize their noncombat service.

Kill the Abomination Called the DWM.

The new “Distinguished” Warfare Medal (DWM) is completely unnecessary.  It  improperly recognizes noncombat service involving no personal risk with a combat decoration, and further confuses the issue.  It should be immediately abolished.  If any are awarded prior to its abolition, conduct a joint service review board to convert any such DWMs to an appropriate peacetime decoration (LOM, MSM/DMSM, Commendation Medal, or Achievement Medal) based on a review of the documentation supporting the original award recommendation.


The situation today regarding combat decorations appears pretty well broken – but also appears fixable.   I think the recommendations I make above would go a long way towards reintroducing a modicum of logic and sanity to the situation.  And I think they’re all defensible recommendations, even if some will not like them.

— — —

As I said above:  that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. (smile)



(Author’s Note:  the acronym “FUBAR” in the article above is not intended to be obscene.  One translation is “Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition”.

There are of course some other, alternative translations for “FUBAR”. [smile] )

Category: Military issues, Veterans Issues

Comments (68)

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  1. steve says:

    i think your ideas are reasonable. something needs to be done. we give out far too much eye candy and the problem is only getting worse.

  2. NTXvet says:

    It’s a problem in the Air Force as well. Good suggestions. Wish someone would use them…

  3. NHSparky says:

    Awards? They give out awards in the Navy and Marine Corps?

  4. Hondo says:

    steve: I really have no heartburn with a relatively liberal policy regarding decorations. They do recognize outstanding performance, and properly used they can build morale and inspire better future performance as well.

    But decorations should mean something, and that meaning should be both consistent and known. And they have to be awarded fairly and consistently.

    Otherwise they become a morale killer instead – with a potentially severe result on unit cohesiveness and effectiveness.

  5. EdUSMCleg says:

    Coming from the Marine Corps, I would say that higher awards (BSM and above) are given a lot more liberally among officers and SNCOs. Some units are notorious for giving them for BS reasons. There is also many cases of lower enlisted being awarded lower awards than what they should have rated. There was a story yesterday about a Captain in Force Recon receiving a BSM(V) and his warrant reads almost the same as mine, and I was awarded a NAM(V) for the same actions. Do I care? Not really- I was just doing my job. However, when I read his warrant I just laughed knowing if I was of higher rank I would have received a higher award. I agree: the whole deal is inconsistent.

  6. Hondo says:

    EdUSMCleg: my observation is that your service is indeed the “stingiest” with respect to decorations, followed reasonably closely by the Navy. I’d rate the Army next (with a fair gap), followed with moderate gap by the USAF.

    Not saying any of those is “better”, just my observation of what I’ve seen over 30+ years.

    I’d also concur with your observation regarding the BSM. However, when awarded for service vice heroism the BSM is essentially the combat-zone equivalent of a MSM. It’s been my experience that MSMs aren’t very common for personnel below the grade of E6 or E7. It’s generally pretty hard for personnel lower in grade to be in a position of sufficient responsibility to make that level of contribution over time. That may well explain much of the “rank-skewing” regarding the BSM (and higher decorations) when they’re awarded for service vice heroism.

  7. 68W58 says:

    Part of the problem is how awards are considered for career progression. For instance, if the expectation is that every E-7 and above will get a BSM for a combat tour (and this has been used as a guideline by many units) then it seems to me that the awarding authority faces a problem: if you award those soldiers that medal based on those criteria then you are “watering down” the award. On the other hand if you are strict in how you give out the award then the presumption made by boards up the chain is that MSG so and so, who didn’t get one, is a POS when in fact he just did a competent job. Then, if he is in competition with another soldier from a different unit which was not as strict he suffers in comparison when he might in fact be a better soldier. It’s a mess.

  8. CBSenior says:

    Speaking for SeaBees, a lot of times in combat zones we are transfer from Navy OPCON to Marine and even Army OPCON. Getting Awards from other Services was a crap shoot at best.
    Across the board standards would have helped. One of the ones that gives me and the Bees Butt Hurt is the CAR. You either have to be blown up or get in a fire fight but the Scope Dopes and the rest of the Blue Water Navy can press a button from a 1,000 miles away and the whole ship gets it.
    Lastly, Navy Awards manual list EOT for Officers and what specific award is appropriate based on pay grade. The fix is already built into the system.

  9. BohicaTwentyTwo says:

    I deployed with a Reserve Transportation battalion to Kuwait in 2004. We were a (shipping) terminal battalion, so we had only about 70 members, with a large proportion of officers. I was one of 5 Captains and we also had 14 Majors. The Active Duty Transpo Brigade we were assigned to was short of staff officers so one MAJ and one CPT were bumped up to their level to fill in the S-1 and S-4 slots respectively. At the end of the tour, they both received BSMs. Everyone else, including myself, were awarded ARCOMs and AAMs. Now the S-4 was competent and actually did some hard work. He even went TDY to Anaconda for a week. But the S-1 was absolutely worthless. He was a former general’s aide and wound up as S-1 because he couldn’t perform a single task related to our actual mission. Seriously, how much work do you think an S-1 does for a 70 man battalion. The only reason he got a BSM was because he got bumped up to Brigade and they gave every officer at that level the same award, regardless of the work they actually did. Also, he put in his own award.

  10. Hondo says:

    Frankly, BohicaTwentyTwo, I’d question anyone in Kuwait, Qatar, or most other locations on the Arabian Peninsula (other than Yemen and maybe the Kuwait border) rating a BSM for duty after about Mar 2004.

    I’ve been to both Kuwait and Qatar briefly 2x each, albeit in 2007-2008. When I was there, folks in Kuwait and Qatar were indeed in the designated “combat zone”. But in Kuwait, almost nobody carried a weapon/ammo on-base, only one weapon per vehicle was required when traveling off-base, body army was virtually never seen (and wasn’t required off-base), and there hadn’t been a publicly-acknowledged hostile incident in either country since some time in either 2002 or 2003 (I think it was the one at Bubyan Island in Kuwait in Oct 2002, but I believe there may have been one involving 2 DoD contractors in early 2003 in another part of Kuwait).

    In Qatar, if I recall correctly you were required to turn in your weapon on arrival (if coming in from Iraq or Afghanistan) and draw it again when you left. You were not allowed to carry it while there. If coming in from someplace outside the AOR, you were not required to bring a weapon when going to Qatar or Kuwait. It’s now been nearly 5 years, so I might be misremembering things – but I don’t think I am. I distinctly remember having to wait around a while at about 0300 or 0400 for someone to arrive so I could turn my weapon in for storage the first time I went to Qatar.

    “Combat zone” my ass – at least by 2007-2008.

  11. SFC Holland says:

    Great article, great points. I have seen all of this first hand as well. Hell, every service member has.

  12. UnicornDick says:

    They should start by getting rid of anything that is just a ribbon – Army Service Ribbon, Overseas Service Ribbon, NCO Prof. Dev. Ribbon, etc.

  13. Hondo says:

    UnicornDick: regarding most ribbons – meh. No harm/no foul either way IMO. Everyone in the service knows them for what they are: block checks.

    I’ll make one exception to the “meh”: the USN/USMC CAR. I suspect folks in the USN and USMC who rate that would violently disagree with you about canning all ribbons. The CAB is their rough equivalent to a CIB/CMB/CAB.

    — break —

    Thanks SFC Holland. Two questions, if you can/don’t mind answering them:

    a. Is the situation in Kuwait/Qatar the same today (I’m curious)?
    b. How’s the recovery coming (if you don’t mind letting us know)?

  14. CBSenior says:

    @13 Hondo See my @8 regarding the CAR for the USN. Lots of Heartburn on that one.

  15. BohicaTwentyTwo says:

    The threat level was a bit higher in ’04. We traveled between the bases every day and for much of the time we were required to wear vest and kevlar and have a full mag in the pocket. We were also locked down much of the time. No trips to the mall or anything. I think MSMs would have been appropriate for those whose work level deserved it, but we were ‘forced’ to give out BSMs as we were in a designated combat zone.

  16. UnicornDick says:

    @13 agree on the CAR (why not attach a medal to it?)… the other ribbons are silly though.

  17. Hondo says:

    BohicaTwentyTwo: sounds like things had changed quite a bit in Kuwait, particularly at Arifjan and Ali Al Salem, by 2007. Reading the above I don’t have quite as much heartburn about those given out in 2004 to your unit; it seems that someone thought there was a credible threat and you reacted accordingly. Thanks for the background.

    Yeah, the exception to Army policy allowing MSMs and AAMs in the combat zone didn’t take effect until fairly late in 2004 – some time in October, if I recall correctly – even though it was made retroactive to 11 Sep 2001. If you left before then, your unit was still operating under the “old rules” and should thus have awarded LOMs (doubtful, except maybe the Bn Cdr), BSMs, ARCOMs – or nada.

    Not quite sure how you managed the AAMs; I’m pretty sure those were also banned in a combat zone prior to 2004. I could be wrong about that one, though; the 2001 edition of AR 600-8-22 might have left some “wiggle room” for the AAM (as I recall it explicitly prohibited awarding the MSM in a combat zone). I’ll have to research that some more when I have time.

  18. A Proud Infidel says:

    @10, Amen, Hondo, I was in Kuwait in 2010, we didn’t carry weapons there and then, although driving in Kuwaiti traffic should qualify one for something!

  19. EdUSMCleg says:

    I am CB in regards to the CAR. I got one that covered all 3 deployments to Iraq. No big deal, that’s the way it is. One CAR per theater and all that. However, there are FOB dwellers who would get mortared occasionally who also got a CAR. We (infantry) were out there getting our asses puckered daily and FOB dwellers rate the same award for simply taking some indirect somewhere on the base. Similar to the Naval Ship example. The CAR is probably the most respected award the USN/USMC can give out, but even IT has become watered down with new guidelines awarding it as a blanket for any base/ship receiving fire/putting rounds down range (i.e. Artillery).

    Disclaimer: I am not denigrating other MOS’s service, just pointing out that there is no way to distinguish the level of combat one participated in. I know the Army has CAB and CIB which kind of distinguishes it, but I imagine the Army has the same issue with the blanketing awards problem. It is what it is- we all know what we did. However, as others pointed out, promotions and assignments can be determined based on awards and therefore commanders may feel obligated to award someone something with that in mind.

  20. EdUSMCleg says:

    I am *with* CB..

  21. Hondo says:

    A Proud Infidel – 100% correct about the Kuwait roads. They were pretty damned bad, and were indeed pretty damned dangerous.

    When I was in SWA, I remember hearing about what one guy said on his departure. He was Navy on either a 1-year or 6-mo rotation, and was stationed in Kuwait (Arifjan, I believe). He remarked when leaving that he’d been in a combat zone for either six months or a year, and the most dangerous thing he’d done while there was drive to/from the APOD/APOE. (smile)

    — break —

    EdUSMCleg: fully agree with the CAB being worth keeping. Personally, I think the Army and USAF should have adopted it vice creating the CAB and CAM. I’d have been perfectly OK with infantry and combat medics being the only ones in the Army with a special badge for participating in combat. What those guys go through is worthy of recognition.

    The CAB IMO fixed a minor inequity, but adopting the CAR would have done exactly the same while allowing the infantry/combat medics to still receive special recognition.

  22. EdUSMCleg says:

    Lol. I remember coming out of Iraq in early ’04 and going through Kuwait. By then they had a Pizza Hut and a Subway and I believe a Burger King. I am fairly certain I gained 10 pounds in the week we spent there “decompressing” before heading home

  23. EdUSMCleg says:

    I agree with that assessment, Hondo.

  24. NHSparky says:

    CBSenior–I agree with you on the blue-water types rating a CAB for outgoing fire only. It’s one of the big reasons we bubbleheads only rarely got them, but then again, there but for the grace of God, and a really good ship control team and a throttledog who could put the boat at ahead flank in about 10 seconds.

  25. CBSenior says:

    @24 NHSparky, it is the only example where it is outgoing fire only. Now if a Ship takes incoming fire that is a whole different story. All other conditions are incoming fire and (old Rules) returning fire. Now acting accordingly in the combat situation. That had to be changed because troops were getting hit by IEDs and there was no one to return fire to, so they would not get a CAR. Even though they were blown to bits by an enemy action. Seeing an MM on a Frigate with a CAR is like listening to Fighter Jocks pound their chest and tell you what great warriors they are, while wearing a 40 million dollar suit of Armor.

  26. Tom says:

    I love this post.

    It is as issue that is not discussed enough in the Army (at least it wasn’t when I was in 2001-2011). I’d add a couple of more ideas:

    – Immediate suspension of all service awards. That’s right: everything on your chest would either be 1. a qualification badge, 2. an award for valor, or 3. a campaign medal. Why do we need service awards? They are so common and diluted that we don’t even notice them, we only notice their absence.
    – Stop writing your own awards. Yeah, I know, no one can actually submit their own awards. But in practice, I was routinely asked to ‘draft’ my own award bullets for my boss, who inevitably used them verbatim. The experience left such a bad taste in my mouth during my first deployment I never did it again. And forfeited at least two service awards for it when my boss said ‘Whatever, it’s your award. You’re in charge of your own career.’ I think if I didn’t do anything worthwhile enough to get my boss or someone else to sit down and write a couple of bullets, then I don’t deserve an award. I’m okay with that. But, I’m not okay with seeing everyone wearing medals that they wrote for themselves and got their CoC to sign off on.

    OK! off the soapbox now

  27. EdUSMCleg says:

    One reason I like the USMC uniforms, Tom. Ribbons/medals and rifle/pistol qual. and call it a day.

  28. Just Plain Jason says:

    Unfortunately I have too much anecdotal evidence about the messed up awarding of awards in Iraq that it really bothers me to think about it. Maybe my philosophy is off, but I always believed that you wrote awards for your troops and not yourself. Hell I have more respect for an e-4 that has awards for merit than an e-9 or and o-4 that has awards for showing up.

  29. Tom says:

    Another thing: I don’t think you emphasized the ‘rank skewing’ on awards enough. That is a seriously damaging problem with our Army leaders today. I used to be a Battalion Adjutant and I saw firsthand how commanders didn’t even read recommendations for awards as long as the precedence ‘matched’ the grade. Like a BSM for E-7 or above was waved along, but you really had to sell a BSM for an E-6. It usually took an in-person conversation between battalion and brigade commanders to get one approved. The troops notice that and it incites resentment. Rightfully so, I think.

  30. ohio says:

    The Duffel Blog has two articles on awards. Funny as hell, especially the S-1 and the BSM.

  31. obsidian says:

    Jesus wept!
    Gongs, bits of fluff and ribbon some you get for 180 days of service, other’s take 48 hours in a hostile fire zone. Many are foreign nation awards, (I recall my brother getting an award paper from the nation of Kuwait during the Gulf war 1 and in place of a signature there was a pastel reddish pink colored swipe, Mom bless her heart said Look some kid colored on his award!) And that gong from the now defunct nation of South Vietnam.
    Many of the men I served with never wore awards, medals or ribbons unless they were a required item or by order.
    Yet there are those willing to buy, steal even lie just to get these bits of metal and cloth. Then there are the ones who really have to earn some medals and pay in blood, limbs and sanity many pay for such awards with their lives.
    Medals and gaudy ribbons who wants them? Those who place stock in such things, who doesn’t want them? People who wish to forget the reason or who feel they don’t deserve such even if it’s the Medal of Honor.
    Like the old WW 1 vet I read about long ago who was awarded a purple heart he earned years ago in the trenches, a chemical attack wounded him. The man never sought out any of his medals or awards he said those were for Heroes and he wasn’t and he didn’t think they gave a purple heart for gas casualties.
    The awards system has always been broken, subverted and FUBAR’ed most likely for a reason.

  32. Hondo says:

    Tom: I agree that rank skewing exists – too much so. However, some degree of rank-skewing is to be expected. Senior NCOs and officers are generally in positions of higher responsibility and impact; their performance will thus almost always affect the overall mission more that one of their E4 subordinates. As I said previously elsewhere: how many E5s have the opportunity to perform duties of sufficient scope and responsibility to actually merit a MSM as an end of tour award during peacetime, regardless of performance? One in a hundred? a thousand? I don’t know the exact number, but I’d guess the fraction is quite low.

    Where rank-skewing really torques me is with respect to awards for heroism. That should never occur. Yet I rather strongly suspect (but cannot prove) that it does at times.

    What bothers me nearly as much is seeing the degraded/blurred difference between combat and noncombat awards. As I said in the article, I’ve seen at least two cases where people ended up with a CAB and a MSM for duty in Iraq. The Kosovo BSM fiasco is another example. And the new abomination called the DWM is yet another.

    Awards earned in combat, whether for service or heroism, are simply worth more. Blurring the difference IMO cheapens them.

  33. Dave says:

    Before we left CONUS there were NCOs in our unit telling us who would get what, and it basically happened pretty much the way they said it woud. Senior NCOs and above BSM, everyone else ARCOMs/MSM/AAMs. You cant put the paste back in the tube. If you waved a magic wand and said, thats it, no more BS awards, unless you went back in time and revoked the previous BS awards, you’re just making the previously awarded BS awards more prestigious as the years pass by.

  34. Dave says:

    My grandfather who served in WW2 told me if you’re worried about keeping your rank, you probably dont deserve it. He would probably say the same thing about awards.

  35. El Marco says:

    worked with an Australian NCO in 1982 who was a legend in their army for missions he pulled in VN. He showed up one day in his “walking out” uniform and was wearing only two medals. One of my (not so bright) pals asked him about it. His answer:”In the Australian Army we give medals for valor in combat, not for doing your f%$king job or being a good boy.”

  36. Disgruntled Major says:

    I took all my soldiers aside prior to every deployed awards ceremony and told them that they were going to see a lot of bullshit and not to let it get to them (especially if it was their first deployment). “It is what it is”
    Don’t get a case of the red ass over someone else’s award. If I put you in for a higher award and it got downgraded, I’ll tell you and apologize for not writing it up stronger to get past the “gatekeepers”.

    PS CABs should be done away with or tightened down considerably.

  37. Hondo says:

    Disgruntled Major: not sure I agree completely about the CAB, but IMO it does get abused – both ways. At a minimum some standardized, mandatory guidelines from DA on what does and does not qualify definitely seem in order.

  38. FatCircles0311 says:

    Combat Action Ribbon being awarded to every swinging dick within 10 miles of an infantry company that is actually getting some really annoys the piss out of them. Literally the only earned award the vast majority of grunt will see is still a ribbon AND a fucking mockery navy wide when bitches on ships, big PX bases in country, and the most POG fucks that never even saw the enemy rate it just so their vaginas won’t hurt.

    Do we really need a GWOT ribbon when there is already a national defense ribbon?

    I have two navy unit commendations and I have no idea what they are for. Whenever I met vets I ask them what branch and what their MOS was and awards aren’t even considered.

  39. Dragoon 45 says:

    @32 Hondo. I will not give names, but I personally know a young 1Lt from a NG unit who was put in for a Silver Star in the Rockpile. His award was downgraded to an ArCom with V device because “he was NG and a 1LT, not a Cpt or higher RA Officer”. I read the initial debrief of his ETT after the contact and from the statements his team members made, the man should have gotten a DSC. His Cmdr was livid over it, but the approving authority would not listen to reason. There is without a doubt rank bias in the awarding of medals for valor and there is also bias against members of the Reserve Components for the same awards.

    As far as awards for achievement, they only mean something by their absence anymore.

  40. Hondo says:

    Dragoon 45: sounds to me more like a case of anti-RC bias than rank, though maybe some of both. But whichever it was doesn’t matter. That was indeed BS, and should not have happened.

  41. Semper says:

    I put one of my Sgt’s in for a BSV with witness statements from a SSgt and an Capt, it was downgraded to NAM/V, guy who downgraded it, put himself in for a BSM at the end of the deployment and got it. Did not know BSM’s went out for being a spineless coward who led himself to weight gain at DFAC4 while the rest of us were playing frogger with all of Al Anbar Province in 2006.

    The Awards system is a high school popularity vote and will never be fixed to the standards that any of us want. It’s pretty sad. My Great Uncle was on Iwo Jima as a MGunner and recieved a BSV and that was for 27 continuous days of Zapping Japs and trying not to get killed. I read his warrant and believed it was NCross or Silver Star material entirely.

    The guys that know know, the guys who did not deserve the awards they wear also know. It all comes out in the wash anyway.

  42. EdUSMCleg says:

    I have pretty much quit caring about awards. I know what I did, so my memory is good enough for me. I do, however, make sure I talk about guys I served with. Who will remember/tell the stories of the ones who didn’t return if we don’t?

  43. Dragoon 45 says:

    Hondo. I deployed with a mixed RC/AD unit in Afghanistan, it was a mix of the worst of both worlds. We were doing the ETT mission and also providing security for the training facilities, running local patrols, etc. Higher’s guidance was E-7 and above, Warrant Officers, and Majors and above were to be awarded end of tour BSM’s provided they didn’t have an AD or UCMJ action. Additionally only AD types were eligible for valor awards above the BSM if they were warranted. There was a very visible anti RC and also a visible rank bias when it came to awards for either achievement or valor. Also according to the CSM (AD not RC) only E-6 and above were to be considered for BSM’s with V devices on the enlisted side, I couldn’t believe I heard that when he told us that in a SNCO meeting. I know a very deserving medic who pulled three casualities to safety under fire who was denied a BSM with V because he was an E-4.

    From talking with friends, this was not an isolated incident, many units both RC and AD had the same screwed up policies when it came to awards.

  44. WOTN says:

    Air Force awards are way out of control. I saw a pic of a butterbar with 4 or 5 rows, in a military publication (and no, he wasn’t prior enlisted).

    And Army awards lack consistency. In my own experience, many of the awards I received lacked credibility, and in times I rated one, I didn’t get one. I have personally been briefed by CSM’s on rank based awards (in combat zones). I have personally seen REMF personnel get “first dibs” on BSM’s.

    I view the CAB with the same respect as a combat patch. It is awarded with nearly the same criteria. I remember the debate when it was being considered. While the CAB is a “better solution” than cheaping the CIB, unless they decide to maintain a strict standard, retroactively, the CAB is barely a cheap piece of tin. I would not wear it, period.

    The GWOTEM? No, do not get rid of it. I earned it, and would not trade it for an ASM/ISM. I could care less if no one recognizes it today. It was awarded exclusively for a period in time when the Military was at war in a real way, not sleeping in airconditioned buildings, with restaurants and malls minutes away.

    Expeditionary does not mean combat. It means austere, with few buddies to back you up. Normally combat does mean expeditionary, but not in these wars, not for several years. Expeditionary forces normally consider tents to be a luxury. Don’t worry, the next war will also have an “expeditionary” period, and the Troops will again have to learn that “CHU’s” are a luxury that come later.

    On the ground, in the battle, outranks in the air, supporting the battle, outranks in the rear, outranks, in a supporting non-combat rear, outranks stateside, outranks peacetime FT Belvoir. That’s the way it was. That’s the way it should be.

    Not only should many of the recommendations above be implemented, but many of the medals of today should be eliminated. There’s a happy medium from the days it was MoH, PH, or nothing, and today, where a DWM outranks a BSM.

  45. ComancheDoc says:

    WOTN, id like to point out that the only people who have CHUs are those at BN and above; Co and below have BHuts with 20-40 people in them and the only climate control being whether or not the door is open, while this might be better than tents it’s marginally so.

  46. Twist says:

    @45, My last Iraq tour my Platoon had 36 of us living in 4 rooms that were the size of a normal room in a house here in America.

  47. Twist says:

    When I was a PSG in Iraq I put two of my Squad Leaders in for a BSM for meritorious service because they deserved it. I was told that they weren’t high enough rank and I couldn’t submit them as such. I told my command that they couldn’t determin what I put them in for and that they still had to send it up, they kicked back the awards with “mistakes”. After submiting them four times I was told that my 1SG would be writing the awards. They got ARCOMs. It makes me ashamed of my BSM because they deserved it more than I did in my mind, I just happened to be higher rank.

  48. ComancheDoc says:

    @46, sounds about right, overlapping cots, no real personal space/privacy.

  49. WOTN says:

    Commanche, I spoke, not long ago, with a unit leader who felt “adrift” as his entire military career, he knew where he was headed to war, and what enemy they would be fighting. For the first time in his career, he didn’t have a specific area of a specific country to be training for. He didn’t have a single Soldier that had been in prior to 9/11, and he didn’t know what kind of training to lay on for them. He had been in longer than anyone in his unit.

    If such a unit, were told to set up a fire base in a desert, or a jungle, (not take over a base from someone else), would they know how? Would they even know how to set up a tent, or a TOC? Would they comprehend where the initial firing positions, or the priorities of work to improve those positions?

    I said previously that tents would be considered a luxury, because, when you pack your life on your back, a poncho is lighter and smaller than a shelter half, hence the poncho is what kept the weather off you at night. That’s expeditionary, and HQ were the REMF’s for having GP Mediums, or 40 man tents, and those comfortable cots to sleep on.

    THAT war will come again, against a standing army (likely), as it did in Iraq in 2003, or as it did against the Taliban in 2001. Whether the next war is COIN, or Conventional, Our Military needs to be ready, and NOT have a learning curve on how to set up a tent, or run a patrol, or talk to village elders.

  50. ComancheDoc says:

    honestly WOTN that sounds like the army needs to goto the field and live there for a while, not playing range games or ducking around at JRTC/NTC type places. You can sandbox setting up a base with fields of fire and all that without actually spending time/effort/money to do it “for real”. in other words, real training. I guess I’m biased, my unit had setup a host of fire bases each time we deployed; all afghan.