Saturday, February 13, 2010

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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