Fewer Gongs for Modern Marines? .

USMC EGA eagle globe and anchorIt’s definitely a common belief (although not a universal one) among the combat grunts of the ground services that that higher echelons of command have gotten, to use a word that doesn’t really fit the seriousness of the claim, stingy about awarding high valor awards, compared to the rate of awards in previous conflicts. Marine Major Christopher B. Mays puts it like this:

There is a perception by Marines that the award process is more restrictive and that fewer valor awards have been awarded in Iraq and Afghanistan than in previous wars. ….

A multitude of potential questions could be asked concerning the awarding of personal decorations for valor in combat. Is it a valid perception that the U.S. Marine Corps is more restrictive in awarding valor decorations in OIF/OEF? Is there a significant difference in the frequency of valor decorations awarded for each conflict or war during the period from WWI to the War on Terror? If so, why?

What Maj. Mays did, as you may have guessed from the tone of the above paragraphs, is analyze the “top three” awards (MOH, Navy Cross, Silver Star) longitudinally across all the Marines’ many armed conflicts from WWI to today.

In fact, the number of valor awards has declined precipitously since Vietnam, compared to a fairly stable level from WWI through Korea and the early years of Vietnam. World War I makes an interesting comparison, an indirect comparison because the Silver Star Medal was not available in World War I, because the Marines suffered just about twice as many KIA in WWI as they had done as of the study’s cut-off date in OIF/OEF, 2461 vs 1220. Yet the disparity in medals is greater — even when Silver Stars are added in, the number of top-three awards in OIF/OEF is under 40% of the number of top-two awards in WWI. MOHs are only awarded at 15%, and Navy Crosses at 8%, of the WWI rate, a disparity only partially compensated by the existence, now, of lower valor awards that were created after World War I.

KIA 2461 1222 49.7%
MOH 13 2 15.4%
NC 394 32 8.1%
SSM 0 127
total 407 161 39.6%

Moreover, comparing citations (which was beyond the scope of this paper), it’s hard to identify a World War I MOH or Navy Cross that can reasonably be said to merit only a Bronze Star or Silver Star.

The situation is even more disparate when you compare later wars with OIF/OEF.

KIA 19733 1222 6.2%
MOH 81 2 2.5%
NC 957 32 3.3%
SSM 3758 127 3.4%
total 4796 161 3.4%
KIA/DOW 3852 1222 31.7%
MOH 42 2 4.8%
NC 221 32 14.5%
SSM 1571 127 8.1%
total 5686 161 2.8%

We could go on, but you get the point. Either today’s Marines are considerably less nervy than their institutional (and often, the way service has come to run in families, familial) antecedents, or the Marines as an institution has lost interest in recognizing its Marines’ valor.

We, having known Marines of all these generations, except, sadly World War One, have a strong opinion on this issue, which we’ll keep to ourselves just now, because this post is about Major Mays’s research, not our opinion.

The official response from the Marine Corps Awards Branch defends the way in which it awards medals. The Marine Corps Awards Branch Head, Mr. Lee Freund stated, “A much more correct observation would be that the Marine Corps staunchly avoids inflation of valor awards and consistently seeks to ensure that the level of valor required to earn a specific valor award remains consistent with awards earned by Marines in previous conflicts.” However, the findings detailed in …[the study]… do not agree with the statements made by the head of the Awards Branch, numerically speaking. There is a disparity in the number of valor awards given during OIF/OEF when compared to all previous wars from WWI to OIF/OEF.

So why is this of interest to us? We’ve never been Marines, and we’ve never been given any high decoration. No more do we harbor any resentful feeling that we deserve one; all we did was hold up our end of the log when the duty was ours. But we think the same dynamic, whatever it may be, is at work in all services. Mays tries to understand and explain why this is happening in his Corps, but the scope of his research is necessarily limited. He suggests that a cultural change that devalues awards consequent to a general devaluing of the services may be a factor; the constant media and entertainment-culture disparagement of the military virtues may be being reflected in the services themselves.

It’s also clearly the case that the bureaucratic and administrative topheaviness of the Corps and the DOD is a factor. In World War II, paper awards recommendations handled by jack-of-all-trades unit clerks usually led to an award in weeks or months. In OIF/OEF, a dedicated computerized awards system operated by a bloated clerical establishment takes years to act, or, as is often the case, to fail to act.

But the reasons require further study, and Maj. Mays has suggested some positive research questions that future researchers can use to hammer out some answers. Fixing the problem — now that Mays has documented that there is a problem — will require command attention (if it doesn’t get it, it will get Congressional attention, and we can’t imagine any way that will make things better).

Major Christopher B. Mays has provided a valuable service to the Corps, the DOD and the nation by documenting the fact that awards incidence has declined in the current unpleasantness — some DOD officials have been inclined to pass this widespread perception off as mere whining by pampered troops and officers. If you are interested in this kind of thing, you should Read The Whole Thing™: Top 3 Valor Awards USMC ADA611586.pdf

28 thoughts on “Fewer Gongs for Modern Marines? .

  1. LFMayor

    Well hell yeah, why award the exemplary when instead you can give the pogues two or three Navy Accommodation Medals for shining brass and tying small stuff for the Captains Gig and they can use those points to accrue rank.

    Beside, there might be embarrassing inconsistency on percentages between the pointy end and the haft. You know, unspeakable things like gender, orientation, race representations that don’t line up to what’s “fair”

    Systemic rot, it’s everywhere you care to look.

  2. Odin's Ravens

    Is it possible that the type of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan lent itself to fewer situations that could be turned into MOHs etc? It was a whole different type of warfare.

  3. Greg

    I’ve thought about this as well. To clarify, I have never been in combat, retired after 24 years AF Security Forces, so my concept is limited. I am a bit of an amateur historian, however, and without any metrics, or data, I am wondering if some of the difference lies in having trained, professional troops versus draftees? I remember shooting the bull with my Dad and some of the stories… Thesis: Many of our top awards were issued as a result of some desperate moments in our military history (Anzio, Kasserine, Chosin, Tet etc). Could the dedication and professionalism of our current force, prevent the situations needed for heroism? I would love to hear comments from those that have been there and done it.

  4. RobRoySimmons

    Or maybe a cultural import, “if I can’t have one or we don’t all get one no one gets a medal.”

  5. Neil S.

    I think that Greg may be onto something. I was in a weapons company in Ramadi in mid-2006, and we tried very hard to avoid fair fights. In fact, we took only one casualty (in the company) as a result of direct fire. I believe we had one Bronze Star (with V, at least) awarded in our company, to a machine gunner who roundly deserved it. I recall our platoons’ consensus being that the worth of the Bronze Star was being diluted by non-combat awards to officers, for excellence in paper shuffling.

    1. Neil S.

      Correction: three casualties due to direct fire in the company: two KIA by sniper, one WIA by RPG. Everybody else were killed/wounded as a result of IEDs.

      1. Neil

        Navy/USMC slang for Article 15. NAM is a Navy Achievement Medal, and our command only gave those to the H&S guys.

        1. Hognose Post author

          I thought the Sea Services always called it “Captain’s Mast,” with those overtones of being tied to a hatch cover and lashed with the cat o’nine tails. “Mr Grey will see you now!”

          I probably read too many 18th-Century sea stories as a kid. At enlistment time, I walked right past the Navy recruiter… “How bad can the Army be? At least they don’t whip you.” Of course, that was before anyone coined the term “toxic leader.”

          1. LFMayor

            Captains Mast can include NJP non judicial punishment. I had a chief who got 3 days bread and water for screwing up when he was young, for real! Other fun things included extra duty (read that as shit jobs after hours), reduction in rank, forfeiture of pay, restriction to ship/quarters (this REALLY blows after a 6 month float). It could also go into article 15 territory, or bonus round you get the whole grand prize and sample from the entire buffet.
            I was in late 80’s to mid 90’s, you had to really try and show your ass to go to Mast. Things still got handled in places like Aft Steering and other traditional methods for the most part.

          2. Hognose Post author

            The Army called those traditional methods “wall to wall counseling.” I suppose the Navy/Marine version would be “bulkhead to bulkhead”!

  6. WiseCaveOwl

    definitely charts the rise of the self-serving military apparatchick. In the same vein, consider RAF fighter pilots for ALL OF WW II: one (1) VC

  7. Kirk

    After the utter bullshit I observed going on with regards to awards in the Army on my two wartime deployments in Iraq and Kuwait, I honestly think the entire system needs to be burnt to the ground, abandoned for the next generation or two, and only brought back in a very circumscribed form after all the people brought up under the current system are dead and gone.

    It’s gotten that bad. I honestly doubt you can really trust the system at all, anywhere beneath the level of MOH, and as we’ve seen with regards to the young Captain who was there next to Dakota Meyer, I don’t think we can trust the MOH process, either. Although we can probably count on the legitimacy of awarded MOH, I think there’s a demonstrated bias as to whether or not the MOH is actually being awarded when it should be.

    We’ve managed to make the award system even worse than what we were doing in Vietnam, which I didn’t think was possible. The careerists are always up for a challenge, though. So long as it doesn’t involve actually getting shot at, that is.

    1. Pathfinder

      Having retired after 23 years, I completely agree. The shit I saw boggles the mind.

      I used to love making heads explode when I would tell people about the retroactive award of the Bronze Star to recipients of the CIB and CMB during WWII. They couldn’t believe that Privates could get that award.

      1. Hognose Post author

        18th Airborne Corps came to Afghanistan in 2002 or so (and we started losing not long after that, which may be connected). They actually had a document on their server in the G1 folder explaining what award went with what rank. But hey, they were flexible: while E8, O4, CW3 and up got the Bronze Star for service as an end of tour award, and lesser lights such as E6, LTs, and wobbly ones got the ARCOM, there was a one-grade grey area (SFC, CPT, and CW3) where the higher award might be justified. The document also described “expectations” for valor awards, but more nebulously, still making it clear that the Silver Star, for instance, was something it helped to lead a BN to get.

        Our awards all had to go through their admin shop. And again. And again. Some guys’ awards went through five times — some successfully, some not. In a few cases they revoked the ARCOM preparatory to cutting the Bronze Star orders, and never cut the BSM orders. We would have been better off treating it as what the SAS calls a “sickener” and not putting any of our men in for awards, except valor awards. “That’s just our culture.” It would have built tremendous cohesion, while the current suck-up and HQ toady-friendly system undermines cohesion. I don’t believe we had a single valor award, not even an ARCOM-V, that was not matched with a PH. XVIII Corps gave their guys a bunch of ’em.

        So somebody in charge of counting wool socks in the warehouse in Bagram was likely to be higher decorated that someone who faced hostile fire repeatedly.

        There also were mass awards of CIB/CMB to fob dwellers.

        1. obsidian

          The Unit diary clerk at my unit in CLNC was a former mortar man with a silver star and a purple heart.
          The Grunts called him a pog with much disrespect.
          He would laugh at them.
          What you assume and don’t know can make you look like a fool.

      2. Hognose Post author

        Yeah, even a lot of the WWII vets do not know they’re entitled to that. I was surprised when i first read it, but given the very strict criteria for the WWII CIB, it was a fair award in my opinion. Not many CIB holders today (me neither) have had thirty straight days of receiving direct aimed enemy fire.

      3. Kirk

        The primary function of an awards system is supposed to be that it encourages and motivates the junior enlisted towards “proper conduct”, as well as it serves the function of recognizing and rewarding valor under fire. What we have turned it into is a parody of those functions.

        My second tour in Iraq, I went over as the Brigade S2 NCOIC. As soon as we hit the FOB, along comes a divisional order demanding that we sacrifice an E7 as an LNO, despite the fact that the HQ was less than a mile away. I could have walked to work and still lived in my brigade LSA, that is how close we were. Still, being Engineers, my bosses said “We’re tasked for an SFC LNO, we’ll send one…”. I spent the entire year over there doing 12-hour shifts in the D-Main, mostly twiddling my damn thumbs. I think I actually responded to a couple of questions every two weeks, or so. Other than that, complete waste of oxygen–And, the other brigades, including the organic ones, merely sent SSG LNOs up for the night shift. Irritating, to say the least–I extended my retirement by a year in order to make that deployment, and wound up being used as a place-filler.

        Come the end of tour, and they’re working up the awards. Initially, I’m told I’m being written up for a BSM. I inquired as to what my guys on the PSD team are getting, and I’m told that divisional policy says that E5 and below are only eligible for, at most, an ARCOM. Most won’t even be getting that. Now, these are men who went outside the wire at least weekly with the Colonel, and who’d all been shot at on multiple occasions in the course of their duties. My SGT, who I was advocating for, had actually gotten into a situation where his actions saved the lives of a family of Iraqi civilians. Nope, I was told–We can’t give him your allocation for a BSM. Since I hadn’t been his direct-line supervisor, I was only allowed to “influence” his award, not write him up for it. I think it got downgraded to some kind of BS Letter of Commendation, which I think was bullshit. After his first tour in Iraq, where he’d been blown up multiple times on convoys, I knew what it was taking him to get on the truck and go out. He was scared shitless every time, and never showed a sign of it to his troops or bosses, but since he could talk to me, a little, I had a pretty good idea of what it was taking him to do that, which was a lot. Funny, I thought something like that should have been recognized and rewarded–Y’know, what the system was supposed to be doing, right?

        Told the boss to politely fuck off, and not write me up for a damn thing. Took me three weeks to make that stick, and the assholes still wrote me up for a damn ARCOM, which was still higher than anything that the guys on the PSD got. They wanted me to come down for an awards ceremony, and I warned them that if they made me do that, they were going to be embarrassed when I got done with it. Somehow, my invite “got lost”.

        As we were leaving, I’m in the TOC one day, having passed on LNO duties to the incoming unit. Someone hands me a pile of paperwork, and I go through it, only to find the award paperwork in it. I made sure I had my bosses eye, and turned around and ran that pile of shit through the shredder in front of him and the XO. Cost me a couple of major favors with the S1 NCOIC, but I made damn sure that they never transmitted that bullshit up to DA. I actually got more satisfaction out of shredding that crap than I would have ever gotten out of receiving it and wearing it on my uniform, to tell the truth.

        Now, do you know how I know the system is broken? After having made that essentially futile gesture, I think every junior enlisted person in the HHC knew about it inside of an hour, and I spent the next week having people come up to me and shake my hand, usually mumbling something like “Hey, Sergeant K, I heard what you did with your award, and why… That was pretty cool…”.

        Stop and think about that, for just a second: I got more respect from the troops for having shredded that damn thing than I would have for accepting it. I felt better about myself for having done it. Actually accepting that award would have been both embarrasing, and a continuing source of personal shame to this day. Instead, having shredded the damn thing, and made sure the orders for it were never put in my personal records, I have a nice, warm feeling of personal righteousness whenever I think about it.

        Does any of that sound like it came out of a working, functional military awards system? I don’t think it does.

        Burn it down. Abandon the idea for a generation or two, and then start it up again under some much stricter rules. As it stands now, it’s not what you did, it’s what rank you held, who saw it, and whether or not the higher headquarters wanted to “allocate” you the award. WTF? Do I “allocate” my performance? Are my men’s acts of valor and sacrifice “allocated”? “Oh, this is only a “minor action”, I’m not going to run out and drag Mikey back out of the line of fire…”.

        We’re running a dysfunctional Army, I’m afraid. I just hope that the final lesson we learn doesn’t include national destruction before we finally nut ourselves up to fix this bullshit. Blows my mind that they actually think that awards ought to be considered as a part of promotions determinations, when the sad reality of it is that they should really be used as negative indicators. “Oh? You kissed so much ass on your last tour that the commander awarded you a bronze star for making coffee? Yeah, you’ll make SFC when hell freezes over, Mr. Re-Enlistment NCO that never left the wire…”.

  8. Adj

    As a former Marine adjutant, I am glad that Maj Mays is bringing attention to this disparity. I think there are two main causes at work here.

    Firstly, the USMC in general has a culture of awarding lower medals for equivalent performance than other branches. For example, we withdrew a Navy Achievement Medal submission for the Army psyops Sergeant assigned to my battalion in OEF when his command put him in for a Bronze Star (which was awarded). The USMC also has an unfortunate habit of linking noncombatant awards to rank: NAMs for junior-enlisted/junior-NCOs; NCs for junior officers/NCOs; and BS or LM for field grades and senior enlisted.

    Secondly, I suspect the introduction of lower combat awards such as NV (NAM w/ V) and CV (Navy Comm w/ V) has displaced what in earlier conflicts would have been BVs or Silver Stars.

    The computerized awards submission system (iAPS, Improved Awards Processing System) actually works pretty well, and I don’t think it’s a cause of this issue. In Afg the regimental command put a real emphasis on timely submission of awards, and at my XO’s urging my battalion submitted all our awards before we redeployed, with most getting final disposition before we left. Timeliness would, however, definitely become a factor for the top valor awards, which would need to get endorsements at every level in the chain of command from Bn to CMC or SecNav.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Thanks for the insights. Back in 2003 at our end of tour (Army, SF) the overall command CTF 180 wanted initial award submissions for end of tour awards by redeployment -120! And expected them to be final by R -90.

      The Army assigns its lowest-ASVAB soldiers to be clerks and ammunition handlers, which means that the two things most screwed up in an Army unit are usually personnel records and ammo inventories. The NCOs are promoted up in a stovepipe, so your divisional support units tend to have sergeants major with 80 IQs and clerk shops without anyone of average intelligence working there.

  9. John Smith

    More bureaucratic violence.

    I was involved (inadvertently) in the “to” line of an email string between a board considering the issue of an award/medal . This particular award was being considered for a newly minted E6 (me at the time). Being the curious sort, I read the string from the beginning– honestly in search of the originator. I couldn’t imagine who would have pieced the citation together- having been largely alone with my men.

    What I found was a lengthy discussion between senior officers about their concerns at awarding this decoration to a “junior enlisted member”…

    I took a bit of the shine off of the award for me. Especially considering that most 06’s and above have numerous examples…as end of tour awards….

    I had to go no farther than this in my career to understand that being the guy at the tip didn’t mean a damn thing to the guys at the hilt. Safe, dry, warm narcissist- all….well most.

  10. obsidian

    Most awards and medals are for showing up for a certain amount of time and at a certain distance.
    The National Defense medal is for showing up as an active duty trooper for 180 days during a national need.
    Once you get into the Bronze Star range you have to put forth more effort.
    Silver Stars may require being injured, wounded or killed, MoH usually is posthumous.
    In an age where the Military is seen as criminals and killers of children, where the Veteran is seen as the real danger and a terrorist it is no wonder the awards and medals are drying up.
    The number of citizens of one political persuasion that feel all veterans are to be incarcerated until deemed psychologically fit to be around normal people has grown.
    The words heard once ring in my ears today, “Medals? We don’t give murderers medals we lock them up” and from a labor board employee, “Veteran? Well you have two choices, security guard or the Mafia Ha, Ha, Ha,” the records for paroled convicts and veterans were kept in the same file cabinet.
    Such is life.

  11. Squid

    One factor in the awarding of higher medals is the paranoia about embarrassment if there is an error in the citation that is later discovered and hits the media. “He really didn’t earn that….” is a favored media story line. This leads to extensive fact checking and demands for multiple, unequivocal witnesses which causes the long delays as the chain of command/approval operates from a baseline of disbelief. While this certainly reduces exaggeration and weeds out weaker write ups it also discourages inputs in the first place.

    There is also the fear that a high honor may be given to someone who turns out to be less than perfectly acceptable to the public. We don’t want to laud someone who is then found out to be a rotten spouse or hasn’t filed their tax returns. This might tarnish awards for anyone else even if earned. This seems to lead to an overall hesitancy.

    The common thing heard on awards boards is “Why don’t we just roll this into his/her end of tour award?”
    “Because they deserve to be awarded swiftly in front of their peers” doesn’t seem to be an adequate reply.

  12. Arthur Curtis

    I’m afraid the nature of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan is the reason for the dearth of medals. In the U.S. Army’s largest pitched battle, the Battle of the Bulge in WWII, a single month’s time saw at least 18 MOH and 97 DSC’s awarded. One source I saw had 3,100 of our soldiers’ fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan coming from IEDs and it’s difficult to be heroic against a hidden bomb.

    Far from being stingy with medals, the most highly publicized medal recipients lacked the necessary heroics to be commensurate with their award. I’m sorry if it offends someone but I find Dakota Meyer’s actions very light for someone receiving the MOH. Then there’s the appalling awarding of the bronze star to Jessica Lynch. She was deserving of the purple heart and nothing else because Lynch certainly didn’t “distinguish” herself in “heroic or meritorious achievement.”

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