Saturday, February 13, 2010

Medal Inflation, Part 2

If you want to be entertained for hours and understand one reason why I met many soldiers who were upset about awarding Bronze Star Medals to people who were not in direct combat, then watch the 2001 HBO Miniseries "Band of Brothers." This eight-hour show chronicles Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment assigned to the 101st Airborne Division, from training through D-Day through the end of World War 2.

If you look at the decorations received by this storied group of American soldiers, you will see the Bronze Star Medal was given for gallantry under fire. Every soldier I met who had watched the series remembered in particular when Easy Company, with less than 30 men, attacked a German anti-aircraft battery. The battery was dug in and protected by machine guns. Using fire and maneuver, the remnants of Easy Company that had just parachuted into Normandy attacked and destroyed the emplacement. The attack, led by then 1st Lt. Dick Winters of Lancaster, is still taught at the US Military Academy at West Point. Winters received the Distinguished Service Cross for leading the attack. Sgt. Donald Malarkey was Winter's NCOIC and fire team leader. Malarkey was awarded the Bronze Star. Malarkey got two additional Bronze Stars over the next year. Easy Company as a group fought in more battles than any member of the Normandy invasion force and Malarkey had the most time in the front lines of any soldier in Easy Company.

Many soldiers, as I wrote yesterday, are angry when they see someone who was essentially an administrator receive the same medal that Sgt. Malarkey received for his part in one of the single greatest small-unit actions in American military history.

The Bronze Star was the most resented award I heard about in Iraq, partly because of some of the people who received it never saw anything close to combat, and partly because it was often awarded to senior soldiers near the end of their careers--as in the case of the chaplain in the last post.

But there were also problems with lesser awards. I was firmly on both sides of Medal inflation in regard to the Army Commendation Medal. More on that in a future post.

Medal Inflation, Part 1

Sgt. Melissa White was furious when I visited her office on Tallil Ali Air Base last September. She had just returned from covering an award ceremony for the Sustainment Brigade that was leaving in two weeks. Sustainment Brigades are, by definition, not forward combat units, although in Iraq anybody could get hit with an IED on the roads. What had the tall, tough sergeant fuming was an award of the Bronze Star Medal made at that ceremony.

The brigade chaplain had received the Bronze Star for service during his deployment to Iraq. That service was almost entirely on our big, well-protected Air Base. The chaplain, according to the angry sergeant, almost never went outside the wire (off base) had never been shot at and got the fourth highest combat award for bravery because he spent year in Iraq.

"And he isn't much of a Christian either," she went on fuming about how he spent most of his time with fellow officers and chaplains and about the contrast between him and Chaplain Valentine, the Catholic Chaplain who went on convoys and out to forward bases and outposts every week visiting troops all over southern Iraq.

Her anger was partly specific to this award of the Bronze Star, and partly because she was a reserve soldier who had decided to go on active duty. She cared about tradition and was sure a Bronze Star should only be awarded to someone who was brave in combat--not for 10 months of sustained breathing in a combat zone. In her case it was not envy. She did not want the medal herself. She was sure she did not deserve it any more than he did, although she had ridden in convoys and gone on humanitarian missions in the countryside that can sometimes turn deadly. "If you get the Bronze Star you should be brave under fire," she fumed.

My wife is a professor and deals with grade inflation every semester. It is a perennial conflict between wanting to maintain standards and wanting your students to succeed. In the Army, medals have promotion points. A leader who decides to maintain historic standards in the awarding of medals puts his soldiers behind other soldiers of the same rank and ability who get awards.

The Bronze Star Medal was the focus of anger about the diminishing value of medals. Among people I talked to, the HBO series "Band of Brothers" based on the book by Stephen Ambrose, may be part of the reason. More on that tomorrow.

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