Medal Fatigue

February 3, 2014

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After a bitter controversy over how to recognize the contributions those who fly drones stateside make to the fight against global terrorism, the Pentagon is undertaking a “comprehensive review” of the entire awards system. It’s long overdue.

Last February, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced the creation of a Distinguished Warfare Medal to provide “recognition for extraordinary achievement, not involving acts of valor, directly impacting combat operations or other military operations.”  Furthermore, it explicitly did “not include a geographic limitation on award, as it is intended for use as a means to recognize Service members who meet the criteria, regardless of the domain used of the member’s physical location.” The roll-out made it clear that the medal was intended for those who piloted Predator and Reaper drones from the safety of office chairs in remote locations like Nevada and yet made “extraordinary” impact on battlefields from Afghanistan to Pakistan to Yemen.

Those familiar with the military’s culture were not surprised that the notion of a medal specifically designed for “armchair warriors” who didn’t get their boots muddy, much less risk getting killed by enemy snipers or IEDs, was met with instantaneous backlash, ridicule, and outrage. It didn’t help that the DWM was going to be the nation’s fourth highest combat award, outranking the Bronze Star in precedence.

Among Secretary Chuck Hagel’s first acts when he succeeded Panetta was to suspend the medal pending more review. By April, the man who had earned multiple Purple Hearts for wounds suffered as an enlisted infantryman in Vietnam rescinded the medal entirely, with a promise to create a drone “device” for attachment to other medals. Nine months later, there is still no device. Instead, Pentagon press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby announced that Hagel had decided to order a “comprehensive review” of the entire awards system rather “than looking piecemeal at any specific one.”

This is the right call. While details are scant on what the review board’s mission will be, it’s time for a substantial culling of the current inventory of medals and ribbons, which is bloated because of parochial service interests and the creation of a plethora of peacetime medals 30-plus years ago. Further, we need a standardization of awards, instead of the present system where the same medals and devices mean different things depending on what uniform one wears.

Indeed, the controversy of the Distinguished Warfare Medal illustrates some of the shortfalls of the system.

The DWM was essentially a Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) with a new name so as not to antagonize people who fly manned aircraft, ranking one notch below the DFC but having the same requirements. Requirements which, incidentally, do not include heroism in battle unless one happens to be in the Army. In the other three services—the Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force—one can earn a DFC for “extraordinary achievement” that doesn’t involve getting shot at by the enemy.  Those who do earn the award for heroism append a “V” device denoting valor. But, since the Army does not award the DFC other than for heroism, the “V” device is redundant and therefore not awarded. Thus, it’s not only easier to earn a DFC in the other three services but, perversely, members of other services who see a soldier with a “naked” DFC will assume that it was awarded for something other than heroism.

Meanwhile, the notion that Panetta was breaking faith with our nation’s military heroes by awarding a medal “higher than a Bronze Star” for actions outside a combat zone was silly, in that there were already a multitude of awards higher than a Bronze Star that are solely awarded for non-combat duty. We’ve long since larded our awards system with the proliferation of what I call “FOGO Achievement Medals,” non-combat awards for very high ranking (flag or general officer) personnel.

So, while the Medal of Honor sits atop the food chain, followed by the Distinguished Service/Navy/Air Force Cross, there are now six medals available for non-heroic distinguished service: the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the Homeland Security DSM, (Army) DSM, the Navy DSM, the Air Force DSM, and the Coast Guard DSM. That’s followed by the Silver Star, which is available only for heroism in combat and then two more non-combat awards, the Defense Superior Service Medal (high rank, joint service) and the Legion of Merit (middle rank, non-heroic). Then comes the DFC. Then a quartet of service-specific medals for non-combat heroism, with the Soldier’s Medal being the most well-known. Then comes the Bronze Star, which is awarded for heroism or superior achievement in combat. Then the Purple Heart, for wounds in combat. And then what seems like nine hundred awards (there are actually only a few dozen) for low level achievement or being someplace you were ordered to be for long enough.

Out of all those medals, then, we have only three awards—the Medal of Honor, the Crosses, and the Silver Star—for which heroism in combat is a requirement and two more—the DFC and the Bronze Star—that are combat-only awards that can be awarded for heroism or not. And only the top two of those—the Medal of Honor and the Crosses—aren’t outranked by medals available for outstanding performance of paperwork while wearing stars on one’s collar.

Now, the tongue-in-cheek tone above notwithstanding, I don’t actually begrudge high awards for outstanding performance in high level billets. Three years running a combatant command is almost certainly more impressive than fifteen minutes of derring-do when the bullets are flying and the adrenaline is pumping. It’s hard to argue, for example, that anyone who earned the Medal of Honor in Iraq or Afghanistan made a more meaningful contribution to the war effort than did General David Petraeus.

The reason I call them “FOGO Achievement Medals” isn’t because they’re unearned but because, for the most part, they’re awarded at the end of a tour in a given billet and based almost solely on the basis of what is customary at a given level of seniority. Thus, while a junior enlisted soldier would get an Army, Navy, or Air Force Achievement Medal upon completion of the assignment; a more senior NCO or junior officer would get a service-appropriate Commendation Medal; a middle ranking officer or high ranking NCO a Meritorious Service Medal; a higher ranking officer or very senior NCO a Legion of Merit; a general or admiral will get one of the Distinguished Service Medals. Again, those billets are genuinely harder to attain and come with more responsibility; but an end-of-tour award is an end-of-tour award, not recognition for any particular achievement.

Regardless of the debate over precedence, though, we have far too many awards and issue them differently from service to service.

The Medal of Honor, of course, has a unique status and is instantly recognizable to anyone who served. It’s not obvious why each of the three major services needs their own design, but they’re all instantly recognizable as the Medal of Honor and are awarded so infrequently that it’s probably not worth the fuss.

Given the post-Goldwater Nichols emphasis on jointness, it probably makes sense to keep the “Defense” variants of the Distinguished Service, Meritorious Service, Commendation, and Achievement medals to recognize those who have served in joint billets. But we should merge all the others into single, service-neutral awards. Similarly, there’s no reason to have service-specific Good Conduct, Overseas Service, Sea Service, and Professional Development medals and ribbons.  In addition to radically streamlining the awards list, it would have the additional benefit of making everyone’s ribbon rack recognizable to members of other services. Not only do the six Distinguished Service Medal variants, to take one example, look completely different from one another but another service’s variant is easily confused with similar-looking but completely different medals from one’s own service.

Beyond that, the Pentagon should standardize the way we recognize school completion, skill attainment, longevity, and the like.  Currently, some services award medals or ribbons for completing required schools, qualifying with a weapon, hitting time-in-service milestones, serving as a drill instructor, and so forth while others instead award badges or service stripes or offer no recognition at all. My instinct is that medals and ribbons should be reserved for special achievement, rather than meeting required standards. Regardless, however, all services should recognize the same accomplishments in the same manner, preferably with identical ribbons and badges. In addition to preventing, say, an airmen from having twice the ribbons as a Marine with comparable achievements, it simply makes sense to have both be able to instantly recognize the other’s achievements.

Aside from needing streamlining and standardization across services, the American military has a serious case of medal proliferation.

It wasn’t always thus. My dad retired from the Army as a First Sergeant in 1982 after 20-plus years of service with only a handful of medals, mostly related to his stint in Vietnam. Until his retirement award of a Meritorious Service Medal, his highest award was an Army Commendation Medal with umpteen oak leaf clusters.

At the tail end of his career, the Army came up with a passel of minor awards to deal with the fact that, after several years of relative peace post-Vietnam, there really wasn’t any way to boost morale by handing out trinkets to junior personnel. So, the Army Achievement Medal, NCO Professional Development Ribbon, Overseas Service Ribbon, and Army Service Ribbon all came into being on 10 April 1981.  Note that the last three are mere “Ribbons;” they don’t even come with a medal to be worn on the full dress uniform.

As a young lieutenant, I had the Army Service (“Rainbow”) Ribbon–awarded for the impressive act of completing the required training that allows one to go on to a billet in an actual Army unit–to go with my Airborne and Air Assault badges. Most of my lower enlisted soldiers, on the other hand, had an “impressive” rack of ribbons to denote having gone on to schools (NCO Professional Development), having served somewhere (Overseas Service Ribbon or Army Expeditionary Medal), and managing to complete a tour without committing a criminal act (Good Conduct Medal). It was mildly comical.

Desert Storm changed that. I got a Bronze Star upon returning home to go along with a Southwest Asia Service Medal and two campaign stars. Everybody who happened to be in the US military in some capacity—even reservists and military academy cadets—got a National Defense Service Medal. Upon leaving the Army a year later, I got an Army Commendation Medal and the Overseas Service Ribbon. While I was in grad school, I got a Liberation of Kuwait Medal from the Saudis and, quite some time later, another from the Kuwaitis. Oh, and it turned out that sitting around Kuwait and Saudi Arabia waiting to fly back to Germany was actually a combat campaign, so I got another bronze service star to pin on the Southwest Asia Service Medal.

My contemporaries who remained in, colonels now, look like South American field marshals. The Army has been in so many engagements in the last twenty years, each with their own campaign medals and associated foreign awards, that I no longer recognize many of the awards being worn by today’s soldiers. And, of course, they never got rid of all those medals they created for the peacetime military of 1981.

Hagel’s commission is unlikely to radically reverse this. We’re not going to take medals and ribbons away from those who have them now and admitting that most of the ones we do have are of low value risks hurting the feelings of those who wear them. But consolidating, streamlining, and standardizing our awards system would at least make it more fair and transparent.


James Joyner is an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council. These views are his own.


Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

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17 thoughts on “Medal Fatigue

  1. I’ve long since learned that there are only a few that really meant much – the Medal of Honor, Navy Cross/DSC, and for the Navy & Marine Corps, the sea service deployment ribbon (which has relatively clear standards and implementation). Aside from that, pretty much everything else can and will be fudged, even with SecDef’s review (which, I think, is reasonable but will also likely never get beyond a short-term fix).

  2. It depends on the unit and the CoC, I told my Soldier in Iraq and Service members in Afghanistan, everyone gets a medal… call the Campaign Medal.. any thing above and beyond that, you’d have better demonstrated you went above and beyond everyone else that was in the dirt, getting mortared and shot at… Plus you got a bonus.. called combat pay… A lot of my peers in other BCT handed out awards like candy.. So yes I agree.. TOO many awards for doing what you signed up for

  3. That is why my ASU’s have a streamlined rack. I do like campaign (actual campaign) medals. But each one of the medals on my 5 ribbon rack has a story (except from the Army Service Ribbon, my last BC made me wear that one, so it got onto the last ultra thin pre-made rack order). All the “thank you” medals are in the drawer. NDSM, GWOTM, mob medals, overseas service etc, are gathering dust as they say nothing about my accomplishments or skills. I take the cue from CJCS GEN Dempsey’s tendency to wear a two row rack on his ASUs.

  4. Mr Joyner,

    Not to belittle your service, and thank you by the way; one does not earn the Medal of Honor, one is a recipient of the Medal of Honor. To compare the actions of a MOH recipient to that of one who serves at a desk is ludicrous. The MOH is received by one who at great personal risk and intriptidity perform a singular act that is worthy of rememberance and important to the action at hand. There are service medals so that those who sit at desks may have a trophy as well. Its not the medal awarded it is for what it was received and what the person did, be it service or singular action. And yes, when the bullets are flying, Petraus’ actions means nothing unless I am getting air support….

  5. Medals, at least starting in the 20th Century, were specifically created for morale purposes. The Air Medal was created to keep aircrews in cockpits in spite of high attrition rates. The coveted Bronze Star was minted because ground forces wanted their own version of the Air Medal. Even now, the only difference between the MSM, DMSM, BSM, and Air Medal is the geographical location of the period of service and who you were attached to.

    Now the Distinguished Warfare Medal was the same thing, although taken to an extreme and rightfully rescinded, but with very few exceptions, all Medals serve the same purpose.

  6. A portion of Hagel’s medal review was mandated by Congress by the recently enacted National Defense Authorization Act, which directed a review of Purple Heart criteria (likely to recognize those killed and wounded at Ft. Hood as well as some other instances overseas where the assailant(s) identity were unknown).

    I would agree that we could eliminate a few of the service specific FOGO medals, consolidate a few others (i.e. why have a Defense Meritorious Service Medal when all the services already issue the same Meritorious Service Medal), and make a clear boundary between those that are awarded under hostile fire/imminent danger conditions and those that are not. The standards should be conditions based and not politically based.

  7. The Distinguished Flying Cross is established under US law (10 USC 3749) and can be awarded by the Army for extraordinary achievement as well as heroism. It is just extremely rare and I can only remember it being done once in the last 25 years or so.

    The reason why the Army does not utilize the V device is because it is not specifically authorized by the statute. The other services interpret the statute to not prohibit use of the V; however each one has a slightly different use of the V for one service it mean earned in combat, and to another it designates that it was for heroism.

  8. I am amazed at photos of our very capable young service members with four rows of ribbons, after maybe four years of service. Researching an Army post for info on their museum, noticed the post CSM had six MSM and 12 ARCOM. The young troop’s grandfathers that left the service during the Vietnam era had maybe two rows. Their great-grandfathers who completed four years, maybe much of it in a combat zone, during WWII left service with one row. Those old warriors in heaven are looking down on this and laughing.

  9. And the warriors from the Revolution, 1812, Civil War, and Indian Wars had none.

    So I guess those guys are in heaven laughing at the WW2 guys, so what’s your point.

  10. I think the author makes a valid point when discussing discrepancies between the services. When I served in Afghanistan I rolled out on convoys 5-6 days a week serving more than 8 months in country. I did not get fired upon, nor did I return fire, but I was excellent at what I did which was above and beyond what would be expected of most Sailors serving in that position. When I left Afghanistan I was awarded a commendation medal, which was appropriate. In contrast, almost every Airman who served a six month tour in Afghanistan, many of whom never left base, left the war zone with a Bronze Star. I don’t want to seem like a jerk suggesting they didn’t deserve the award, but when the services mix and see these discrepancies it affects morale. In an ideal world it’s about doing a good job regardless of the award received (or not received), but it is hard to smile and applaud the Airman who has faced significantly less risk for a shorter period of time and received a much more prestigious award.

  11. Robert,

    Are you seriously going to stand on the validity of your flippant response to Don’s thesis? When compared with previous wars/conflicts, do you not believe that our military has evolved to the point where we over-award and bulk up the racks of our service members?

    Don’s point if I portray it accurately is that the services are, by comparison, throwing medals at personnel. This situation is aggravated even more by the comparison with WWII folks; some didn’t have a 6-15month tour…they finished fighting on a continent and went to another. I would further posit that the comfort levels facilitated via Skype, internet access, satellite phones, fast food outlets, and Salsa Night on the FOB are luxuries that WWII folks couldn’t dream of enjoying.

    What is the point?? EXACTLY the point is that technology has evolved and it is being used to satisfy the greedy requisites of the last decade of some folks in uniform as well as the elevated expectations of people stateside who become accustomed to daily video chats. Further, we have made the decision to create and support concrete T walled cities in which everyone can live in a homey existence. No wonder the cost per deployed person cost has become astronomical – not to mention comical. What makes this worse is the idea that people should be showered with additional rows for their fruit salad racks to show how bad, once again, they had it.

    When deployed, somebody always has it worse than you – that’s the nature of the beast. But to suggest that lathering additional bling is necessary to reward folks who volunteered to do a job is wrong. I think Don was suggesting, tongue in cheek, that the WWII vets who didn’t enjoy the comparative luxuries of service members today would laugh at us. Yes, us; including myself. I wouldn’t stop at the appropriateness of purely WWII folks rolling their eyes at current medal practices; it should include veterans of Korea and Vietnam as well.

    We stand on the shoulders of giants and shouldn’t forget that by comparison, most of us couldn’t carry a lot of those folks’ water.

    By the way, with regard to your notion “the warriors from the Revolution, 1812, Civil War, and Indian Wars had none” remark; strongly suggest you take a peek at the Military Order of the Purple Heart, or swing by the Pentagon Hall of Heroes to examine the awardees of the MOH with their respective date(s) and re-think your premise.

  12. I remember after “Urgent Fury” (possibly the last time a U.S. military operation had a cool name that wasn’t loaded with sanctimonious B.S.) that the Army and Air Force awarded thousands more medals than they had personnel actually on Grenada. Also recall David Hackworth’s anecdote about an Army general furious (apoplectic actually) that “I have a division of paratroopers tied down [at Pt. Salines] while three companies of Marines are running helter-skelter all over the island.”

    Have a look at the racks on the chests of the chiefs of defence for Israel (one row); Australia; New Zealand (three rows); the U.K.; Canada; and South Africa (our Western military peers).

    And then compare with clowns like Petraeus, Amos, Odierno, Moseley, ad nauseum….

  13. G,

    The argument using WWII veterans and “This situation is aggravated even more by the comparison with WWII folks; some didn’t have a 6-15month tour…they finished fighting on a continent and went to another. I would further posit that the comfort levels facilitated via Skype, internet access, satellite phones, fast food outlets, and Salsa Night on the FOB are luxuries that WWII folks couldn’t dream of enjoying.” is uninformed.

    I completed four tours in a rifle platoon, none of which included “Salsa Night”. So I guess that gives me four years in country. Since the earliest WWII ground guys went at it in in 1942, I guess that means they have 3 years invested. Should I beat my chest and tell them they don’t know anything? You can’t compare any wars with each other, service is service.

    Newsflash Sir, technology will continue to evolve. I’m sorry mail doesn’t take one year to get home anymore. I however refuse to believe that bravery has changed whether people are in “concrete T walled cities” or crossing the Delaware.

    I’m fed up with all of this back in the old days rhetoric. Back in the old days Units were segregated, so tell me again how great it was.

    “The Army ain’t what it used to be and it never was”

    1. Robert,
      You are upset with something other my perspective because you chose to talk about people ‘beating their chests’ only after telling us how many tours you have.

      Never once do I suggest that anyone beat their chests. Folks who conduct honorable service know, as do their brethren, whether others are deserving of something they wear on their uniform. Being lucky enough to be friends with a MOH Recipient has given me insight into the nature of true selfless service and a virtue found in great men – they care and honor their teammates above themselves. It is during exceptional times that exceptional people prove themselves. Further, this is done without regard for some stupid ribbon.
      I don’t understand why you are “fed up” with anything.

      My comments included an academic comparison of medals awarded during the last 13 years of fighting to that of previous wars. Yes, my language was facetious because me and my teammates didn’t have Salsa Night…I find it embarrassing that anyone did. You, Sir, said you didn’t either….can you really tell me you are on here to defend the medals awarded for “bravery” suffering through untold numbers of Salsa Night and the undeniable duress of those who had to wait for Green Beans Coffee to froth their skim milk?

      Further, the fact that you chose to “Newsflash” me about the evolution of technology further demonstrates that you are upset with someone besides me on this medal issue. I find it ironic that you brought up crossing the Delaware and then to make it comparable to ANY service. Let’s see if I can continue your line of thinking. So, based upon your thesis, ALL service is equal, therefore the “soldier” who recently tweeted herself hiding in her car in order to avoid rendering a hand salute to the colors at 1700 on Ft Carson is on equal ground with, oh, let’s say EVERY combat veteran from Iraq and Afghanistan who, mostly, came home with most of their limbs and most of their buddies?

      You are pissed as something beyond this medal count issue my friend and I am not sure why. You can’t explain it nor can you rationally debate my thesis – you base your rebuttal on “the old days rhetoric” during which we were segregated. Sorry Brother, this “old days” guy finished his tours just recently so if you only have four tours, that is an indicator to me that I not only have a few more days in uniform than you, but I can speak from a better perspective. And by the way, Infantry Brother, don’t preach to me about the advantages of technology…you are too new into the fight to realize how good it is to hump a ruck with modern kit .

      Guess what brother – ever hear of JIEDDO and Rapid Equipping Force (REF) in the Revolutionary War?? Before you take a deep breath and fill that OORAHH chest, consider what is going to come out.
      Whether you will still decide to defend FOBITS or other T wall citizens for their right to proudly wear their Bronze and other bling, medal awards is the question. Combat arms veteran friends of mine who have received the Bronze Star are embarrassed – exactly as they should be because real men value what their friends think of them and others who seek pin-on glory will not stand the test of time.
      ***Just to point out, I do not know this for a fact because I am not, nor ever have been a member of an S-1/G-1 shop who processes and ensures timely documentation of said awards.
      We still have the 1st Amendment right – I look forward to you taking your case and all your succinct evidence to the people at the very next Freedom Flight arrival of Veterans at the WWII museum (lest they try and avoid you by, oh say, dying), or better yet, just put on a sandwich board and start walking around all the memorials and shouting your thesis that “all service is equal and all you old school dorks who think you had it so bad should suck it up.”
      You said that you”refuse to believe that bravery has changed whether people are in “concrete T walled cities” or crossing the Delaware.”
      Robert; after four tours in a rifle company, why are you comparing that service and the service of your buddies to some idiot on a FOB who only heard the rants of Pizza Hut or AAFES vendors crying about closing time? If you never wore a FOB-Bra for a living, why defend people who have running water?
      “Service” AINT “Service” my combat brother – if you think it is, then, well, we have a Delaware between us.

      Regardless, stay safe,

  14. The medal overload tendency would be enormously assisted if our most senior officers would limit their medal/ribbon displays to three rows…Or even better, follow the lead of the Brits and other allies whom limit the hero award business to real achievements. When you see of of their officers wearing a ribbon or two you know that they really mean something. By contrast, our flag officers come across as banana republic generalissimos with dozens of decorations up to shoulder height…all that is missing is a sash and a pistol on the hip.