Leadership: October 10, 2003

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The tendency of the U.S. Air Force to give out medals with wild abandon is again causing problems within the Department of Defense. The air force has already awarded over 50,000 medals for recent service in Iraq, and the Middle East. The crux of the problem is that all the services use some of the same medals, like the Bronze Star (for "meritorious service" or bravery in combat), Silver Star (for bravery in combat) and Purple Heart (for getting wounded). All the awards with the same name are supposed to represent the same degree of bravery and sacrifice, but they don't.

All services also award the Medal of Honor, but no service has tried to toss these out like party favors, and no one would likely try, as this is the nations highest award. But right below it is the Distinguished Service Cross (for the army, Navy Cross for sailors and the Air Force Cross for airmen), which is given out more freely. And then there's the Distinguished Flying Cross, just for people who fly. As far back as 1926, when the Distinguished Flying Cross was established, the first one to get one was a civilian (Charles Lindbergh), for a non-combat bit of bravery (flying a single engine aircraft across the Atlantic.) Some particularly brave and intrepid Air Force pilots have racked up as many as 13 Distinguished Flying Crosses, while no one has received more than two Medals of Honor. One person has received as many as seven Distinguished Service Crosses, but this was a World War I pilot. The Distinguished Flying Cross was invented partly to take care of the multiple awards that the brass loved to lavish on successful pilots. The Distinguished Flying Cross tends to be given out fifty times more frequently than the Distinguished Service Cross. Only the U.S. Marine Corps gives out medals like they mean something. For operations in the recent Iraq campaign, the marines awarded 61 Bronze Stars. The army, with twice as many troops in Iraq, gave out over 5,000 Bronze Stars. It's gotten to the point where some veteran troops, especially officers working in the Pentagon, wear only a fraction of their medals (in the form of rectangular ribbons you see rows of on uniform jackets). Part of this humility is practical, for some officers have so many medals that they will not all fit on their uniform jacket. But there's a more subtle reason. You'll find veteran marine officers in the Pentagon, wearing far fewer medals than officers from other service. But everyone knows that every one of those medals a marine wears means something. Such cannot be said for the masses of chest candy seen on air force and army officer uniforms. 

There have been attempts to rein in this excessive use of awards. But such restraint only lasts a few years. For some reason, the army, and especially the air force, cannot tell the difference between "exceptional service" (which the medals are intended for) and "doing your duty" (for which you get a paycheck, veterans benefits and the undying respect of your fellow citizens.)

 


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