The Military Awards System

Owen West has an enlightening piece in Slate entitled, “Who Really Deserves a Silver Star? – The military’s unfair awards system. ” While I disagree with some of his premises, it’s a pretty accurate picture of how the process works.

The current medal gap actually has three dimensions. First, the different services have different criteria for the same medals. Second, support staff are rewarded more generously than are soldiers on the front lines. Third, officers receive medals that are superior to those given to the enlisted ranks.

Start with the variance among the military branches. The Air Force awarded 2,425 Bronze Stars and 21 Silver Stars from March 2002 to August 2004 for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Twenty-seven airmen were killed in combat during that time, making the Air Force’s ratio of top-level ground-combat medals to fatalities 91-to-1. (This figure doesn’t include medals awarded for airborne bravery.) As of July 31, 2004, the Army had awarded 17,498 Bronze Stars and 133 Silver Stars in Operation Iraqi Freedom, while 636 soldiers have died, an awards ratio of 27-to-1. And the Marine Corps has awarded just 701 Bronze Stars, 12 Silver Stars, and six Navy Crosses (the Navy’s second-highest award) for combat in Iraq, while 264 Marines died—a ratio of less than 3-to-1. Is the Marine Corps too stingy or are the other services too liberal? “I have no doubt that the Marine Corps is more stingy—or less likely to ‘give away’ awards—than any of the other services,” says retired Marine Maj. Gen. Ray Smith, one of the Marine Corps’ most experienced combat veterans, citing a corporal who fought like a lion in Grenada but received only a commendation medal.

Compounding this problem are rules that let support staff win prestigious medals out of proportion to the risks they incur. While the Silver Star is awarded only for heroic achievement under fire, one category of Bronze Star—known as the BS, given for meritorious service in a combat zone—is technically open to those serving miles from the front lines. (The other kind of Bronze Star is the BV, or Bronze Star with Valor, which is reserved for heroism under fire.) During the Iraq war, the military has granted hundreds of Bronze Stars to soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who never set a boot inside the country. When the profiles of many BS recipients appeared recently online—including citations for logistics work onboard ship and personnel processing in Kuwait—the acronym took on its more familiar meaning in the eyes of some soldiers fighting in hot spots like Fallujah and Najaf.

While I’ve never heard people call the medals “BS” or “BV” (it might be a Jarhead thing), there’s no doubt that a Bronze Star with a “V” device is more prestigious than one without. It’s also the case that much less “valor” is required to get one in the Navy than in the Army or Marines. And the Air Force typically awards medals like handing out candy.

I agree with West that awards for heroism should make no distinction for rank. I have no problem with end of tour or other “commendation” awards being weighted for responsibility. Being a successful squad leader is more difficult than being a successful grunt, and leading a brigade is more challenging than leading a squad. It’s therefore perfectly reasonable to award the colonel a Legion of Merit and the corporal an Army Achievement Medal at the end of successful rotations.

Update (9/30 1408): Phil Carter has some interesting thoughts on this as well.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Military Affairs, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Timmer says:

    Some old Chief Master Sergeant once told me that we get more medals because the other services get promoted faster…it was a way to help balance things out. Now that the promotion system is getting a bit more balanced…so they say anyway…I’m wondering if that won’t change sometime down the line.

  2. Boyd says:

    I’ve been retired for ten years now, but “back in the day,” the general understanding seemed to be that the services were ranked 1) Air Force 2) Army 3) Navy 4) Marines in how liberally medals were awarded.

    In terms of “required valor,” I don’t have the knowledge to address your comment about the Navy requiring less “valor” for a Bronze Star. I never knew anyone who was awarded one, which seems about right.

    The only sailors I can think of that would be likely to find themselves in a “valor” situation would be SEALs and pilots on aircraft carriers. I didn’t know any SEALs and none of the pilots I flew with or alongside (my flying career ended before Desert Storm) were ever in those circumstances.

    A lot of words to say a simple thought: cheap shot, James. Damn grunt. 🙂

  3. James Joyner says:

    Boyd: My comment regarding the Navy on that is based almost entirely on the Adm. Boorda incident, where Adm. Zumwalt stated that he had authorized Bronze Stars for Valor for everyone aboard ships, even though they never engaged in active combat with the enemy. Apparently, the rationale was that being in a combat zone was enough.

    I also got the impression from the John Kerry flap. Rather clearly, Navy brass seemed to be impressed with normal performance of duty under fire, confusing it with valor.

    This isn’t to demean the Navy, just to note that, because it’s much rarer for sailors to come under fire–or even be physically present in a combat zone–than for ground pounders, senior leaders are more easily impressed. That’s why the Air Force gives out medals so freely, too. Other than pilots, almost nobody really goes to war.

    As to overall awarding of medals, your ranking may well be right. The Army has far too many “I was there” medals that came about in the early 1980s, during a long period of relative peace. They wanted to be able to award fruit salad so they created awards for just showing up or doing normal schooling (Army Service Ribbon, NCO Professional Development, Overseas Service, Army Achievement, and so forth). I don’t know whether the Navy has those types of awards.

  4. Old Patriot says:

    I received five Air Force Commendation Medals for meritorious service during my 26-year career. I know a few people that spent 25 or more years in the Air Force without getting a single one. The job one had was one of the telling factors. I worked in Intelligence. I was part of several teams that did things for the first time – ever. Some of the things I was involved with were highly sensitive, and on more than one occasion, made significant contributions to the security of the United States. The OPPORTUNITY to excel was there, and the opportunity to do things, and be recognized for them, at levels ‘above and beyond’ normal duty requirements. My achievements – and the physical rewards for them – were not unique in the units I served with. Most of the people that left those units for reassignment were usually recommended for some type of medal – if you weren’t, it was a tacit indication that the individual was considered a ‘slacker’. I usually worked in units that had Army, Air Force, and fequently, Marines, assigned, and all were treated equally regarding award of medals.

    Trying to judge an entire branch of military service, or trying to compare different branches of service, without taking into consideration the actual duty requirements of that branch, both individually and collectively, is impossible. Different units, different service components, had different duty requirements. That alone would require different consideration for recognition.