Army Medal Fatigue

Andrew Exum believes the Army should "get rid of all medals not related to valor or campaign-specific service."

Andrew Exum has stirred up a hornet’s nest with his declaration that, “If it were up to me, I would get rid of all medals not related to valor or campaign-specific service.” He explains, “Most medals awarded for ‘service’ — from the Army Achievement Medal to the Meritorious Service Medal — seem like trinkets most often given based on the rank of the awardee on completion of a duty assignment rather than any activity soldiers actually take pride in. Maybe I am wrong.”

On that last point, he almost certainly is. My recollection is that junior enlisted personnel, especially, were extraordinarily pleased to get any sort of recognition for even relatively trivial good work. There wasn’t a lot of glamor in their workaday existence and the pay sucked. So, getting an Army Achievement Medal–or, hell, a battalion commander’s coin–was tangible recognition that somebody noticed their efforts.

Then again, I served in a different era and in a different service environment. Ex was a Ranger during a period of constant war; I was a rocket artillery guy who served in a fast war following a relatively long peace. It’s quite possible that a Ranger Specialist  with a Combat Infantryman Badge, a Ranger tab, jump wings, and a couple of campaign medals rolls his eyes at an Achievement Medal or NCO Professional Development Ribbon.

On Ex’s larger point, though, I fully agree that the American military has a serious case of medal inflation.

It wasn’t always thus. My dad retired as a First Sergeant in 1982 after 20-plus years of service with only a handful of medals, none for valor, 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 dad’s career, the Army came up with a passel of the sort of awards Ex is complaining about. 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, then, 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 the Southwest Asia Service Medal and two campaign stars. Everybody who happened to be in the Army in some capacity 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 Liberation of Kuwait Medals 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 those April 1981 phony medals.

As an aside, the Army is parsimonious with awards compared to the Air Force.

So, yeah, Exum’s largely right here. In a combat Army, handing out “I was there” and “end of tour” and “good job cleaning your room this week, soldier” awards is rather silly. Even in a peacetime Army and a much less cynical attitude than I’d have later, I felt as silly wearing a Rainbow Ribbon as I did proud wearing the jump and Bullwinkle wings.

At the same time, though, exemplary work over a period of time in a job where you’re not drawing enemy fire is actually worthy of recognition. I don’t begrudge a Legion of Merit or Meritorious Service Medal or Bronze Star for a major in the G-3 shop who plans the logistics for a mission flawlessly. In some ways, that’s more laudable than 30 seconds of heroism when you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. al-Ameda says:

    Aren’t they all made in China or Bangladesh anyway?

  2. Bennett says:

    My Marine unit was pretty stingy with the medals. I remember seeing a recent graduate of Air Force basic and training school, and he had more medals than our company gunny did.

  3. legion says:

    People inside the military know the difference between an award given for valor in combat an an award given for doing a good job. They also know – as James correctly points out – that such pats on the back mean a huge amount to people. Exum is just plain wrong. If he’s got a problem with too many awards being given, look to the requirements for those awards & see if there’s a reason to double-check commanders handing them out like candy, but eliminating them (rather than enforcing standards) is just dumb.

  4. Gold Star for Robot Boy says:

    Reminds me of an an exchange from The Simpsons, when the family attends an air show.
    Bart sees a zoomie directing traffic…
    Bart: Way to guard the parking lot, Top Gun!
    Airman: I have three medals for this!

  5. This situation has already been dealt with for police officers. It was ruled that they cannot be compelled to answer questions in an administrative investigation that could be used against them in a criminal one.

    On the other hand, it’s been pointed out that the major awards for valor, particularly the Congressional Medal of Honor, are being handed out at a far lower rate than during previous periods of sustained combat. So perhaps the problem isn’t inflation so much as homogenization. Everybody gets the same awards whether their service is superlative or mediocre.

  6. Vast Variety says:

    When I served in the air force I received a medal for completing Basic training and one for serving as part of a unit that participated in desert Storm. Although I wasn’t eligible for the medal that you got for actually getting deployed there as the war was pretty much over when I got out of basic and was stationed at Elemendorf. So I had a grand total of 2.

  7. Bennett says:

    As commenters at the site point out, the really egrigious issue is the automatic awards that staff level NCOs and officers receive. I saw my captain receive his Bronze Star after our deployment, and he never left the TOC. Meanwhile half a dozen lances and corporals probably deserved one for you, you know, fighting.

  8. Vast Variety says:

    Now i remember what it was… National Defense Ribbon.

  9. I should mention one anecdote in support of Joyner’s point: I’ve received a Naval Meritorius Unit Citation despite never having even been in the Navy, owing to the fact that when military units get an award, they also now give it to any DOD or contractor civilians currently attached to the unit.

    Although since we don’t have uniforms, we just get a certificate instead of an actual medal.

  10. Mikey says:

    The Air Force ties those awards directly to its promotion system. Any award given for merit (Achievement Medal, Commendation Medal, MSM, Bronze Star, etc.) has a point value attached, and those points are counted toward promotion. One time I missed promotion by half a point, and it was only because someone found an award that had been written but not submitted that I was able to get promoted that cycle.

    Something James and a couple of commenters have highlighted bears repeating: servicemembers, especially younger ones, are very happy to receive the recognition these awards mean. In many civilian occupations, the boss can hand out a cash bonus or spot award, or immediately promote deserving employees. With very few exceptions, this is not true of the military. An Achievement Medal given for outstanding performance, even in peacetime, can be a very significant morale boost, not only because they signify the command appreciates your work, but because they are pinned on in front of all your peers.

  11. J-Dub says:

    I received my first commendation as a mere toddler for shitting somewhere other than my pants. It’s been pretty much downhill from there.

  12. sam says:

    And then…

    Born in 1822 – one Sir Harry Paget Flashman, whose collection of medals includes the following as worn on his chest.

    First Row

    Victoria Cross Indian Mutiny
    Knight Commander of the Bath for services during the Indian Mutiny 1858

    Second Row

    Knight Commander Indian Empire
    Queen’s Medal for Afghanistan 1841-42
    Cabul 1842

    Third Row

    Jallalabad , Afghanistan . Awarded to the defenders of Jallalabad 1842
    Sutlej , India 1846
    Crimea 1856
    Indian Mutiny 1858

    Four Row

    Second China War 1860
    South Africa , Zulu War 1879
    Egypt 1874

    Fifth Row

    Queen’s Sudan 1896
    Third China War 1900
    Queen Victoria ‘s Jubilee
    Edward VII Coronation

    Sixth Row

    Edward VII Delhi Durbar
    George V Coronation
    Order of the Elephant ( Denmark )
    Turkish Crimea Medal 1856

    Seventh Row

    Congressional Medal of Honor (USA, post-1904 ribbon)
    Civil War Campaign Medal ( USA , second ribbon)
    Southern Cross of Honor (awarded by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to Confederate veterans)
    San Serafino Order of Purity and Truth (4th class)

    Eighth Row

    Possibly Iron Cross (Germany, 1870 variety) or Commemorative medal of the Congress of Berlin 1883.
    Legion of Honour ( France )
    Franco-Prussian War Medal ( France )
    Franco-Prussian War Medal ( Germany )

    Ninth Row

    Indian War Medal ( USA , first ribbon)
    Khedive’s Star ( Egypt )
    Khedive’s Sudan Medal 1896 ( Egypt )
    General Gordon’s Khartoum Star

    Of course, Sir Harry got shot at in all those campaigns, through no fault of his own.
    As he told one young American on the eve of WWI: “War’s coming and only you Americans know what it’s going to be like. I was at Gettysburg and there were 50,000 causalities. There’d have been 50,001 if I hadn’t stepped smartly.”

  13. sam says:

    When I got out of the Marines (peacetime service I admit), I had exactly one medal – a good conduct award. Which only represented four years of undetected crime.

  14. Davebo says:

    My experience is Navy and in some ways I agree with James. For instance, sea service ribbon. You’re in the Navy! Sea service generally goes with that.

    I’m torn on the good conduct medal. I remember after the bombing of Libya we were actually given a choice between the Navy Expeditionary of Joint Forces Expeditionary medal. I went with the Navy.

    A medal for finishing boot camp???? We used to say the Army awarded the sun came up this morning medals. It was a joke, or was it?

  15. James Joyner says:

    @Davebo: The Army and Navy have rather similar awards philosophies and represent something of a median. The Marines are somewhat less generous and the Air Force ridiculously more so.

    In some cases, the Army issues badges (Recruiter, Marksmanship) where others issue medals and ribbons.

  16. Davebo says:

    Also, my first tour was maintaining flight simulators at FASOTRAGRULANT. Some senior enlisted had spend nearly twenty years at the same command because they were more familiar with the sims than the manufacturer (Singer Link).

    Thus you end up with an E-8 having a good conduct with lots of stars and a Navy Achievement Medal. I always wonder how a guy with such a bare chest ever make E-8?

    Eventually the Navy contracted out the Sim maintenance to civilians and most of the TD’s either separated and went to work for the contractors or changed to a rating with the best re-enlistment bonus.

  17. PJ says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    On the other hand, it’s been pointed out that the major awards for valor, particularly the Congressional Medal of Honor, are being handed out at a far lower rate than during previous periods of sustained combat.

    That it now is awarded to living people again is hopefully a step in the right direction.

  18. legion says:

    @Vast Variety: Yeah, I came on active duty with an NDS because when Desert Storm kicked off I was a junior in ROTC… I had signed a contract at that point, so theoretically, if Saddam had slaughtered everyone we’d already sent to Kuwait, I & my cohort could be activated as E-3s and sent to war. Needless to say, we were all unimpressed…

  19. Vast Variety says:

    @legion: I was actually put on delayed enlistment for 9 months becuase I was borderline underweight. I was only 117 lbs when I shipped off to Lackland.

  20. sam says:

    @Vast Variety:

    I was only 117 lbs when I shipped off to Lackland.

    Christ. Marines carry pack and gear weighs more than that. 🙂

  21. Tillman says:

    Eh, the number of awards doesn’t bother me, only how ostentatiously service members decide to present them. From the number of military people I’ve met, most of them wouldn’t bother. That’s a good culture.

  22. Perhaps the solution to the problem, if it’s widely recognized as a problem, is to set a maximum number of medals or ribbons which can be worn at any given time. That way you’re not confusing the Victoria Cross, the Ordre de la Légion d’honneur or the Congressional Medal of Honour with your first-course-after-basic-training ribbon.

  23. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @ James Joyner:

    “Most medals awarded for ‘service’ — from the Army Achievement Medal to the Meritorious Service Medal — seem like trinkets most often given based on the rank of the awardee on completion of a duty assignment rather than any activity soldiers actually take pride in. Maybe I am wrong.”

    On that last point, he almost certainly is. My recollection is that junior enlisted personnel, especially, were extraordinarily pleased to get any sort of recognition for even relatively trivial good work.

    How are these two statements different? I’m just not seeing it. Did somebody step on your toes or gore your sacred cow?

  24. NTC says:

    My son is on his 3rd tour. He has 7 rows of medals and ribbons, but would prefer to only show those that meant something. The meaningful ones get lost in all the garbage, he says. Many of the medals are like a t-shirt, indicating that I’ve been here, done that. He would rather not wear those and prefers to just wear the Cav Scout cowboy hat and bullet scars. Those are enough.

  25. James Joyner says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker: Ex is saying that most soldiers take no pride in these awards; I’m saying that they do. That’s a rather fundamental difference.

    @NTC: I’m sure that’s right. As I note, those who have earned truly meaningful awards and decorations value the attaboys much less. But the latter have value for those who never get the opportunity to earn the former. My Airborne and Air Assault badges mean more to me than any of the awards other than the Bronze Star and even that’s fairly close.

  26. Mikey says:

    @James Joyner:

    My Airborne and Air Assault badges mean more to me than any of the awards other than the Bronze Star and even that’s fairly close.

    If I were only permitted to choose one badge or ribbon to wear, I’d choose the jump wings too. Being an Air Force guy who’s gone through the Army Airborne training is pretty significant.

    I got an Army Commendation medal for Desert Storm, that one’s up there, too. But even more than the Air Force Commendation medals I have, I value the Joint Service Achievement Medals, because they were awarded for specific events of outstanding performance, rather than just being end-of-tour medals.

    All that other stuff the Air Force hands out like candy, I don’t really care much about. I think they actually got rid of the Good Conduct Medal, a small step in the right direction.

  27. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner: I think it was Jake Tapper who said he was proudest of his Combat Infantryman’s Badge and all the rest were window dressing.

  28. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: I don’t think Jake Tapper served in the military.

  29. legion says:

    @Nicholas Russon: There’s actually a system that addresses that concern – there is a very strict and well-defined order of precedence for every award a service member might wear, even those awarded by a foreign government. The “best” ribbons go to the top. Also, as others have noted, there’s no rule saying you have to wear _all_ of the awards you’re entitled to.

  30. Racehorse says:

    Who is the most decorated US soldier? (Gump doesn’t count).

  31. Tillman says:

    @Racehorse: Audie Murphy?

  32. Barry says:

    @James Joyner: However, I’ve heard that about Vietnam combat veterans. Apparently the Army handed out awards and decorations (as in for bravery) based on rank, so that a LTC got something no matter what he did. However, a CIB meant something.

  33. dcu says:

    Regarding the AF comment. I’m sick of hearing it. I was prior Army, too. Now AF.

    The AF rack looks larger because (1) they lump unit and personal awards on one side and (2) they have a ribbon for everything that, on the Army ASU, is a goofy-looking badge, lanyard or stripe of some sort.

    Let me provide some examples:
    1) Army Service Ribbon = Air Force Training Ribbon; same criteria for award
    2) Army Overseas Service Bars = Air Force Expeditionary Service Ribbon w/ Gold Frame
    3) Army Service Stripes = Air Force Longevity Service Award (ribbon)
    4) Army Marksmanship Badges = Air Force Small Arms Expert Marksmanship Ribbon

    Frankly, now that I’m no longer in Army “green,” I think the ASU is hideous (but still better looking than the Class B version). When I see the DUI, CSIB, Staff badges, foreign jump wings, German Infantry cords and all the other garbage hanging off it, I just can’t believe how gaudy the whole thing is. I won’t even comment on the plain stupidity of blousing the ASU pants on airborne folks. Make no mistake, the AF uniform is a blue leisure suit and looks about as non-military as the AF actually is, but saying that the AF gives out more doo-dads than the Army is just plain un-informed.

  34. James Joyner says:

    @dcu: I note the badge vs. ribbon distinction later in the discussion section but, yes, that explains a lot of it. Although the Air Force has a lot of badge creep, too, having created flight wing-equivalents for various skill specialties.