War Stories

Who Really Deserves a Silver Star?

The military’s unfair awards system.

The General got the Croix-de-Guerre,
The son of a gun was not even there
—From “A Mademoiselle From Armentieres,” a World War I soldier’s song
banned in most Army camps at the time.

All that glitters

The Bronze and Silver Stars that John Kerry earned in Vietnam, his crewmates will tell you, were the result of his bravery. No, counter his political enemies, Kerry contrived to earn them in order to serve his political aspirations. What permitted him to collect so many medals in so short a time, in fact, was neither extraordinary heroism nor political scheming but the bar on his collar. Kerry was an officer, and like thousands of other officers who have served in combat operations, he was subjected to a more liberal awards process than enlisted men who performed similar feats.

It’s a problem that has continued to plague the military during the Iraq war, causing frustration in the ranks, and it needs to be fixed.

“Sure there’s head-scratching over [Kerry’s] stars, but that’s not his fault,” says one Marine lieutenant colonel and Iraq war veteran who is himself a Bronze Star winner. “There’s a lot of head-scratching in Iraq today. Officers still get higher awards. I’ve never seen anyone turn a medal down. I’d say there’s a double standard except that there’s probably 50 standards when you consider the other services.”

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.

“The problem with the (BS) Bronze Star is that it’s confusing,” says a first sergeant stationed outside Fallujah. “The troops and the public think it’s for grunts in combat when the reality is that (it’s) now an end-of-tour medal for staff. There’s no clear standard.”

Part of this is a result of the changing nature of war. Support staff now outnumber riflemen 6-to-1. In a guerrilla war with no front lines, many of these soldiers are in the thick of the fight. Further, advances in communications and logistics have stretched the battlefield. Awarding the BS for over-the-horizon performance may be perfectly appropriate. “The whole concept of reach-back support has changed,” says Capt. Jonathon Riley, an Air Force spokesman. “We can operate the Predator over Iraq from the United States.”

The final discrepancy is that officers have always been better rewarded than the soldiers in their charge. Today’s wars are no different. The joint ground force that attacked Iraq had 25 times more enlisted men than officers. Closer to the tip of the spear, where infantry units walk among the enemy every day, the ratio approaches 40-to-1. Yet even in the Marine Corps, known to have few caste barriers, the officers are disproportionately represented among the top award winners. As of Aug. 18, Marine officers had received nine times as many Bronze Stars as the enlisted Marines (225 times as manyon a per capita adjusted basis) and 1.2 times as many earned Bronze Stars with Valor (30 times as many on a per capita basis). “I believe that the awards process has always been biased towards officers,” says Maj. Gen. Smith. “Part of that can honestly be explained by the ‘burdens of command’ consideration. … That said, I must admit that most of the bias is unexplainable.”

This skew occurs in part because officers are expected to lead from the front. In the infantry, command-and-control is most effective when it’s located in the dangerous battle space where the lead elements are clashing. Indeed, in the Marine divisions, the commanding general often moves with lead companies. Casualty rates reflect these officers’ dangerous positions. Removing air units from the equation, officers account for 4 percent of the total Operation Iraqi Freedom force but 8 percent of the fatalities.

Still, some soldiers criticize the preponderance of awards for officers because it encourages politicking and smacks of careerism. A letter recently written by senior enlisted soldiers in Iraq reads: “We believe that higher-ranking officers are entitled to high-level awards due to the fact that they must deal with the burden of command and are responsible for the performance of their units. However, it is critical to recognize those who have affected the successes of the command in combat.”

A few simple steps can bridge these three medals gaps. In a clear action memo, the Department of Defense should insist that if the services share the same medals, they must share the same standards. Casualty counts are not necessarily indicative of service but they are certainly indicative of sacrifice. Medals should no longer be harvested in a vacuum.

Second, the Bronze Star needs to be restored to its original purpose—as an award for riflemen on the front lines. As Gen. George C. Marshall wrote in a memo to President Roosevelt on Feb. 3, 1944, explaining the need for the medal: “The fact that the ground troops, infantry in particular, lead miserable lives of extreme discomfort and are the ones who must close in personal combat with the enemy, makes the maintenance of their morale of great importance … particularly the infantry riflemen who are now suffering the heaviest losses, air or ground … and enduring the greatest hardships.”

Certainly, senior planners and support staffs deserve recognition. But the Bronze Star is the wrong award for doing so. Pin the BV back on the chests of those exposed to the worst conditions and scrap the BS altogether. Meritorious service medals remain the appropriate awards for the staff.

These suggestions are not the only possible solutions to the medal debates. But the services need to establish some consistent standards. Until they do, some medals, like those Lt. Kerry earned on the Dong Cung River in February 1968 will continue to inspire as much resentment as they do pride.