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Something Seems to be Wrong with our Bloody Awards System

As long time readers know, I have ranted in this space before about "The Medal of Posthumous Honor" and how, upon reading citations (risky, as they are a pale excerpt of the recommendations) for Distinguished Service Crosses with some holders of the Medal of Honor that I know - and we were all wondering what the heck it took with earn a Medal these days.

Comes now Bennett Dickson, combat veteran, retired Infantry Colonel, to ruminate on the subject  - this time with some numbers.

At the Naval Battle of Jutland in 1916, the British Fleet experienced some unexpected setbacks in the early moments of the engagement against the German High Seas Fleet. Admiral Sir David Beatty was heard to remark, “Something seems to be wrong with our bloody ships today”. With apologies to the Royal Navy, I would like to pirate that remark and say that something seems to be wrong with our bloody awards system today. Since the outbreak of hostilities in 2001, The United States Army has conferred the Medal of Honor on soldiers on just three occasions. The Distinguished Service Cross, the next rung down on the hierarchy of valor, has been awarded to 20 soldiers. Many observers, including myself, believe that the Army has imposed a bureaucratic system for awards approval that has suppressed the proper recognition for acts of combat valor in Iraq and Afghanistan. One explanation that has been put forward is that the nature of the current conflict, especially the prevalence of indirect attacks using improvised explosive devices, has reduced the instances of acts of valor in the face of the enemy. If true, this phenomenon seems to have only affected the U.S. Army.

The United States Marine Corps has a well deserved reputation for the sparing use of awards. Yet, they have made one award of the Medal of Honor and 25 awards of the Navy Cross for actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Navy Cross is equivalent to the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross. These numbers take on additional significance when one considers that the Marine Corps is a much smaller service than the Army and has consequently had fewer forces committed to combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan. An internet search for news stories and citations turns up descriptions of the actions that prompted these awards. The acts of valor were significant and the standards applied were quite high. I don’t think that the Marines are being too generous with either the Medal of Honor or the Navy Cross.

The British Army is another service with a reputation for very exacting standards for their entire honors system, an especially for decorations for valor. The Victoria Cross is easily the equivalent of the U.S. Medal of Honor, being awarded for only the highest acts of heroism. Ranking just below the Victoria Cross, the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross is the British counterpart to the U.S. Distinguished Service Cross and the Navy Cross. To date, the British Army, including the Royal Marines, has awarded the Victoria Cross twice, once for an action in Iraq and once for an action in Afghanistan. Significantly, one of those recipients lived to attend the investiture and is still serving with the Forces. All awards of the U.S. Medal of Honor, to include the two Navy awards have been posthumous. The Conspicuous Gallantry Cross has been awarded 36 times. The British Army and the U.S. Marine Corps are comparable in size and the size of their forces committed to both Iraq and Afghanistan are likewise comparable. The similarity between the numbers of high valor awards presented by these two organizations suggests that their standards are similar.

Making statistical comparisons among the services and nations for their awards practices is a risky exercise. Extreme acts of valor are rare events, and are even more rarely recognized. Couple this with the relatively low levels of intense combat in Iraq and Afghanistan when compared with the wars of the Twentieth Century, and you are left with plenty of room for error and faulty conclusions. That said, the ratio between combat deaths and the numbers of high valor awards provides an interesting insight. The U.S. Army has reported 3057 soldiers killed in action through the middle of March, 2010 and has made a total of 22 awards of the Medal of Honor and Distinguished Service Cross, a ratio of 1:139. For the U.S. Marine Corps with 956 battle deaths and 26 awards, the ratio is 1:37. The British Army and Royal Marines have reported 338 battle deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan and made 38 awards of the Victoria Cross and Conspicuous Gallantry Cross, for a ratio of 1:9. These are numbers that are bound to raise eyebrows at the very least.

On the 19th of March, 2010, the Government of the United Kingdom published its latest Operational Honours List in the London Gazette. These lists are released twice yearly and this one covered the period of the First of April through the 30th of September 2009. It included most of the operational tour of the British 19th Light Brigade in Afghanistan. The Brigade, large by American standards, and its attached and supporting units received a total of two awards of the George Cross, six Conspicuous Gallantry Crosses, 18 Military Crosses, and 38 Mentioned in Dispatches. The George Cross is the equivalent of the Victoria Cross for actions not involving direct contact with the enemy. There is no American counterpart. The Military Cross may be roughly compared with the Silver Star and the Mention in Dispatches is on a rough par with the Bronze Star with a “V” device for valor. I know of no similar accounting for any brigade or regiment of the U.S. Army or U.S. Marine Corps, but I think that it’s safe to say that no U.S. Army brigade has seen awards in these numbers for a six months period. Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan can contrast their own experiences. Also significant in this announcement, is the efficiency and timeliness of the recognition. Less than six months after the closing of the period of action covered, the British government managed to collect all of the recommendations, review them, make decisions, and announce the awards. One would think that with all of the resources and vast communications capabilities of the U.S. Department of Defense, we might be able to match the performance of our British Allies. But, it seems that we cannot. The last announced award of the Distinguished Service Cross to Staff Sergeant Jason Halbisengibbs was for an action that occurred on the 10th of September 2007. The award was not presented until the 14th of May 2009. We do not know how many other such awards are pending approval and presentation.

Something is indeed wrong with our bloody awards system and we can certainly do better. Our leaders owe this to the soldiers who have carried on this fight for the past nine years. We can and should review all of the awards made and recommended to date and revise where appropriate in a way that provides for consistency across the Department of Defense. We should establish a process that provides for rapid submission, consideration, and disposition of awards recommendations. A periodic system along the lines of the British is worth a look. We should acknowledge that not all heroes are dead and loss of life is not a prerequisite to the award of the Medal of Honor. There are live heroes among us and we need to recognize them.

Indeed, there are, and we should.


Meanwhile, back in the rear, the Meritorious Service Medal is the new Army Achievement Medal...
It is impossible to come to any other conclusion than that our system is badly flawed and that the victims are the warriors who carry the fight.

Awards for valor are way down. There are a multitude of documented cases where recommendations have made their way up the chain of command only to be downgraded by nameless staff wienies who have never been in combat.

But I note that officers still get a chest full of colorful ribbons as long as they don't get the clap, or get caught shagging a subordinate. Napoleon is often quoted on the efficacy of bits of ribbon to encourage soldiers to fight. We seem to forget that soldiers fight, staff wienies obfuscate. Which should be encouraged, and which merely tolerated?
I also wonder if Paul Smith would have been awarded the MoH if it came up today. He was a strict disciplinarian and his troops grumbled. Too controversial.
As a city police dispatcher, I once noticed how few of us ever got an "Outstanding" rating on our evaluations and asked one of our shift supervisors about this.

In a rare moment of candor (probably because it was 4 AM on a slow Thursday morning), he admitted that whenever they marked an item as "Outstanding" or even "Exceeds Expectations", the supervisors had to write a paragraph of narrative to support the grade. So, the easier thing for them to do was mark "Average" or "Meets Expectations".

Besides the "dead soldiers can't embarrass in the future" aspect of posthumous awards, I wonder if this is also a factor here, and that certain commanders and NCOs are simply taking the "lazy way" out by not recommending awards that will generate intensive investigations and effort on their part?
A couple of years ago, I was sitting in the chow hall dining facility at Camp Victory and I overheard 2 Army field graders discussing how Patton's 3rd Army had more soldiers than today's entire US Army, yet he had only one subordinate general officer on his staff. To me, this means that there are a lot of general officers in the Army today making career changing decisions (about soldiers they have never met) who may have a minimum (if any) of combat experience. - Just my 2 cents worth from the resident enlisted zoomie

On another note: in Viet Nam, the USAF had an unwritten rule that only an air crew member could be considered for the MOH. Enter A1C Bill Pitzenbarger. The article linked is a little vague. It says he was awarded the MOH and the AF Cross. Actually, he was awarded the AF Cross at the time, and after a 30 year campaign by his family and comrades, it was finally upgraded to the MOH. Although, he wasn't officially an aircrew member, his office was the back of a rescue helicopter. Point is, generals can get funny ideas in their heads up there in the rarified air of the ivory tower and I think today's Army generals are suffering from hypoxia.
BTW John, you can go to the link above on 11 April and get the MOH citation for A1C Pitzenbarger...

Oldloadr - hold that thought.  We'll get to Pitzenbarger...  on 11 April.

Up until the Crimean War and the War Between the States, there were basically no medals for valor in English-speaking forces. It was assumed that the courage of a lion was the birthright of every Briton, and twice as much so for Americans.
John - I knew you would.  I was just making it easy for you... ;)
There's a really excellent painting of Pitsenbarger's  actions that day. I have a copy of it saved to my hard drive.  A Kaman helicopter was involved, too, which just makes it even more kewel. Wooden rotors and men of steel!
Just an biased observation from an RVN vet circa 65,  It seemed to be a system where field grade officers were awarded a lot of fruit salad,  company grade officers got good OERs and EMs got an attaboy.  One SP4 in my sig company went up a pole to retreive a wounded buddy under fire and was put in for the Bronze Star, which was downgraded to something else at Bn and was then denied at Div.  I think the company clerk snuck a letter of commendation into his file with a forged signature.  The whole company wasn't very happy campers after that.
Augetter, that reflects on what I think I was trying to say above,  which is sorta that giving awards for valor is inherently unjust.  What about the guy who's all by himself and performs heroically, and nobody else sees it happen?  Or, as per  your  account,  a  well-witnessed  heroic  deed  which  goes  un-acknowleged? 
Oh, on the title of this post:  I see that I still have a window open for the HMS Hood Association web site.  Yep, battle cruisers, wrongly used.  It'll make yer eyes wet to read the autobiography of Ted Briggs, the last survivor, parts of which are posted there.  He  tells of  escaping from the compass platform just in  time, and looking back  to see Admiral Holland still  seated,  obviously  too depressed and disappointed to try and save himself.

As a band nerd, I feel a special ouchy about that battle.  According to the web site,, a significant plurality of the Royal Marine bandsmen died at their stations  as computer operators  at the Central Transmitting Station.  Judging by the photos of the wreck, they're still in there.
There's definately something wrong, and it's not a lack of heroism of those on the front line.  I have guesses as to what the problem is -- too many staff pukes with Walter Mitty daydreams, thinking that they can do what others did -- and can think of no good way to solve the problem. Maybe restricting staff to receiving at most one medal for each hundred that they approve as written. and one for a thousand that they approve that's downgraded?
I point the finger at DOPMA/EPMS in all it's manifestations. Also the shellacking the army took post Grenada when more awards were awarded than soldiers taking part in the operation. I also personally know of one major who stated that there would be no awards awarded for any activities as part of his unit in desert storm as your mere presence in the combat zone was sufficient reward for career progression *spit* purposes (you're going to get a combat zone seer, what more is needed?). And the armor school commander post desert storm stated on record that combat time and awards would not be considered a determinant in future passing out of the spoils of the total officer concept. I retired shortly after and good riddance to the box-checking sob's.
First, full disclosure.  I am the author of this piece.

Bureaucrats, REMF's, Fobbits, indifferent field commanders are not the problem, in my view.  At best, they are a symptom.  If the leadership of the Army and DoD wanted to quickly recognize combat heroism at a level consistent with historical experience, I am certain that it would be so.  This issue points directly to the senior leadership of the Army, either through indifference or deliberate intent.  They are the problem.

Since the US Army was hit nearly as badly as the USN and USAF during the Clinton "gender norming", feminizing and sensitivity training era, I'd suspect it's deliberate.

Having hero soldiers stands too far outside the acceptable UN Peacekeeping format to be tollerable.
As a city police dispatcher, I once noticed how few of us ever got an "Outstanding" rating on our evaluations and asked one of our shift supervisors about this.

My first OER in Vietnam was a max. Senior rater concurred.

It got kicked back from Group HQ with the notation that they "didn't leave me any room for improvement"...

My twelve years of OERs as a CW4 all recommended either "Promote Ahead Of Contemporaries" or "Promote Immediately" -- I retired a CW4.

On the flip side, I had -- and have -- more friends than the people who kept "losing" my promotion packets, but got *themselves* promoted.


I do b'lieve that I got the best out of that deal...
So we have a flag rank that's primarily Courtney Massengales? This is not not good, this is bad.
" .. On the flip side, I had -- and have -- more friends than the people who kept "losing" my promotion packets, but got *themselves* promoted. .."

Another veiled reference to The Prince of Darkness.  LOL

Frank - are you dissing my PAC?  The estimable Sergeant First Class Sisson?

No, I was thinking of Wesley Clark.  But I seem to remember an E-5 or E-6 named Sisson at Pinder.
E7.  Sisson was the PAC Supervisor when I was the Adj. 

I was not a witness, but its too good  a story not to be true.  Wesley K.  was serving as a Captain on the Division staff, imparting his vast knowledge and intellect to the conduct of the war.  He was quite aware that a CIB and some sort of valor award was a requirment for his cleaver plan for advancement, so he arranged a transfer to a battalion of infantry.  Within the month, he found himself engaged in a firefight sufficient to garner both a CIB and a Silver Star.  He beat a hasty retreat back to the division staff and went on to save the entire Western World.