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:
- Decorations are rank-preferential
- Decorations are awarded inconsistently in different units and services
- Combat service is not properly recognized
- Noncombat service is improperly recognized with combat decorations
- 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 either peacetime or wartime service.
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 cones 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 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 the “Combat Zone” designation for most of the CENTCOM AOR (the entire CENTCOM AOR should 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 according, 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] )