Medals for military valor rarely in the spotlight

The rate at which such medals are awarded has dropped well below that during the Vietnam War and World War II.

By military regulation, an award for valor entitles the recipient to wear a strip of colored cloth precisely one-and-three-eighths-inches wide on the left breast of the uniform, over the heart. Each ribbon, dearly bought, stands for a day that someone did the hard, right thing when everything else went wrong.

On February 21, 2005, before all of his unit had arrived in Iraq, Army Staff Sgt. Thomas Stone and his advance party of California National Guard soldiers stopped to help another group of soldiers after a Humvee accident in downtown Baghdad. Stone shepherded the other unit's dazed troops into a proper security perimeter and called in a helicopter for the injured.

But as the chopper landed, an insurgent detonated a hidden roadside bomb that shredded nine men. Stone ran back and forth, braving sniper fire, to grab first-aid supplies. Then, as a second medevac helicopter arrived and the survivors braced for another blast -- a common tactic of Iraqi insurgents -- Stone curled himself around a badly wounded friend, covering the soldier with his own body. "If it goes off, you're going to be OK," Stone told him. "Hug your wife and kids, and don't ever forget me."

"But there were no more explosions," Stone recounted in an interview with National Journal. The enemy did not have a "secondary device" in place to attack the reinforcements, not this time. Stone and his wounded comrade both survived the attack. Stone is still in uniform -- now wearing the chevron of a sergeant first class and the red, white, and blue ribbon of the Bronze Star, emblazoned with a quarter-inch-high bronze letter "V" for valor.

The latest official figures show that 3,463 Bronze Stars with V have been awarded since September 11, 2001. That's about the same figure as the total number of U.S. troops killed since then in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Every dead warrior leaves behind a story of tragedy and loss. Every medal winner leaves behind a story of dedication and courage. Sometimes the two are the same: A soldier is killed in action and is decorated posthumously. But the vast majority of these heroes, like Sgt. Stone, are still alive; many, like him, are still in uniform.

It is much harder, however, to learn about the valorous living than about the valorous dead. Major media outlets such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, and PBS's NewsHour regularly display photos of those killed but rarely of those decorated. The military itself does not do much to get the word out.

The Pentagon's press office issues a detailed news release listing the name, age, rank, and unit of each fatality, but it delegates most awards stories to lower-profile public-affairs offices working with local newspapers -- that is, if the decorated service member in question receives and completes the proper release form.

Since 9/11, the official Army & Air Force "Hometown News Service" has sent out 3.6 million press releases, but most of those announced routine boot-camp graduations and promotion: Only 2,500 cited valor awards, and many of those involved Commendation Medals, an award more common and less prestigious than the Bronze Star.

It is not only the relatively numerous medals for achievement that the military fails to publicize but the rarer and more prestigious decorations as well. You have almost certainly never heard of David Dunfee, a Marine Corps chief warrant officer. At the outset of the Iraq war, his battalion advanced through fierce resistance to seize the Euphrates River crossings in the city of Nasiriya in March 2003.

Dunfee, who is officially a technical expert and training adviser, not a commander of combat troops, encountered numerous threats during the chaotic urban fight and enlisted any marines he could find to help quell them. Then, with vital bridges finally secured, a second wave of marines began crossing his unit's lines under cover of darkness -- and mistakenly opened fire on their comrades.

"I kind of lost my mind," Dunfee recalled. "I ran up and started banging on their vehicles, making hand and arm signals, yelling to get them to cease fire." Dunfee averted a "friendly fire" disaster, without being shot himself. The only casualty was one marine with a flesh wound to the arm. For his actions, Dunfee received the Silver Star, one of 386 awarded since 9/11.

An even higher award is the Distinguished Service Cross, worn by such soldiers as Army Master Sgt. Donald Hollenbaugh, whose Special Forces team accompanied a Marine platoon on a probing attack into Falluja in April 2004. One of four men in an observation post atop a captured building, Hollenbaugh saw each of his comrades fall wounded, bleeding from shrapnel to the head.

He dragged them to safety, one by one. Then he returned to hold the rooftop alone, making weary circuits to shoot north, throw grenades east, shoot south, over and over, until the Marine commander finally came up to pull him out. It was then that Hollenbaugh learned that his lonely fight had covered everyone else's retreat.

"I was there for I don't know how long," said Hollenbaugh, now retired. "There was no emotion involved. It was just work."

Hollenbaugh's "work" earned him one of just 26 DSCs awarded since 9/11.

The Medal of Honor

At the highest level of valor, only two of the 1.4 million troops to serve in Iraq or Afghanistan so far have received the Medal of Honor.

The first was awarded posthumously to Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith, a 33-year-old Floridian. On April 4, 2003, Smith's platoon of 16 combat engineers was building an ad hoc holding area for Iraqi prisoners at Baghdad's airport, just behind the front lines of the U.S. forces besieging the city. More than 80 Iraqi Special Republican Guards suddenly counterattacked using a highway tunnel that the Americans had not spotted.

Smith ordered his men to fall back and defend the battalion medical tent while he fired a heavy machine gun from an unarmored open mount, coaxing hundreds of rounds from the often-temperamental weapon before an enemy bullet took his life.

"The floor of that [vehicle] was just covered, every square inch, with .50-caliber shells," said Gary Coker, the battalion's command sergeant major, who remembered Smith as a perfectionist "pain in the butt" during peacetime training.

"He was the kind of guy new soldiers dreaded: 'Let's do it again, let's do it again, let's do it again,' " Coker recalled Smith saying. "I don't think anyone else could have kept that weapon going as long as he did."

A year later, on April 14, 2004, in the small, dusty town of Karibila on the Syrian frontier, a 22-year-old Marine corporal named Jason Dunham was fighting hand to hand with a suspected insurgent when Dunham saw that the Iraqi had a grenade. "I was running up," recalled Sgt. Jason Sanders, "and he said, 'No, no, no, watch his hands!' and then it went off; it happened that damn quick."

But Dunham had enough time to throw his helmet over the grenade and then his body over the helmet. The helmet was shredded. Dunham lingered in a coma for more than a week before he died. The three marines next to him all lived.

His is a story out of military mythology, except for a detail that speaks volumes about the modern professional force: Dunham had developed his own technique for slamming his helmet on top of a grenade just weeks before his death. "He demonstrated how he would do it, and we were, like, nah, ain't gonna happen," Sanders remembered. "But ironically, that's probably what saved my life. Every night I go home and see my son and my wife -- the only reason why I'm here is because of him."

Smith's son received his medal in 2005, two years to the day after he died, while Dunham's parents received his Medal of Honor from President Bush on January 11.

At a House Armed Services Committee hearing in December, Rep. John McHugh, R-N.Y., heard activists testify that the military awards bureaucracy is taking longer to determine who qualifies for a Medal of Honor and is being less generous in giving them out than in past wars.

True, the modern military is smaller, is more professional, and has better body armor and advanced medical care than the drafted masses of the past. But even so, two Medals of Honor and more than 3,300 dead since 9/11 is a ratio of one for about every 1,600 deaths in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, far lower than the one Medal of Honor for every 1,000 troops killed in World War II and not even close to the one Medal of Honor awarded for every 250 deaths in Vietnam. (None was awarded during the brief 1991 Persian Gulf War.)

Past Practice

After the Medal of Honor, the historical statistics for decorations are spotty. Because lower-level commanders can award lesser medals, records are decentralized, inconsistent, and incomplete: The Army is unsure of how many Bronze Stars for valor it gave out in World War II, for example, and the Navy cannot find figures on Silver Stars awarded as recently as the 1991 Gulf War.

But for the decorations for which data exist, the pattern holds: Whether compared with the total number serving in a conflict or only with those who died, the rate at which Medals of Honor, Service Crosses, and Silver Stars have been awarded since 9/11 is far lower than in World War II, and a fraction of the rate during Vietnam.

"This is really a sore spot with me," said Steven Russell, a retired lieutenant colonel who was awarded the Bronze Star with V after he and his Humvee driver intercepted and killed four insurgents -- including one of Saddam Hussein's sons-in-law -- after the Iraqis pulled a hit-and-run ambush on another U.S. unit.

Russell said that the Army shouldn't return to the standards of the Vietnam era, when company commanders received Silver Stars almost automatically. But he added, "We have a number of very senior officers, particularly those that missed Vietnam, who really lost sight of the purpose: recognizing gallant soldiers."

And Russell is talking only about the Army, which proportionately bestows more awards than does the Marine Corps. "Especially in '03 and '04, the Marine Corps was being very stingy with combat awards, and it was tough to get one through the system without it being sent back to you for revision or being downgraded," said Maj. Trent Gibson, Jason Dunham's company commander. "For this thing for Dunham to finally go through was a huge deal."

But how huge a deal is it for the country? The comprehensive LexisNexis database counts 120 articles in The New York Times and The Washington Post about Jessica Lynch, the Army private wounded, captured, and dramatically rescued in the first month of the war. It counts five articles about Jason Dunham, and nine about Paul Ray Smith. That the stories of achievement have been told so much less well than the stories of suffering is as much the fault of the military as of the media.

"The award that everybody feels pretty comfortable giving is the Purple Heart," said Russell. The Purple Heart is normally awarded to any service member injured or killed as a result of enemy action. "But showing absolute deference to our wounded, our maimed, and our fallen, the award of choice can't just be a victim's award. The natural reaction for troops in battle is to recoil from danger. But others decide, 'OK, I could get killed, but I'm going to do this anyway.' They're rare men -- and in some cases women: I decorated one of my female corporals for valor. Not everybody does that."

The Pyramid of Honor

To a civilian, the "ribbon rack" on a dress uniform is at once impressive and unintelligible, like poetry in a foreign language. To the discerning military eye, however, those decorations spell out a coded message with the wordless precision of signal flags.

"You can have someone walk into a room in uniform, and to a civilian he looks like Idi Amin, festooned with 'fruit salad' everywhere," said Bruce Gudmundsson, a retired Marine major who is a military historian. "But the cognoscenti look at that and say, 'Aha, this guy has never seen a shot fired in anger.' Another guy might be wearing only a couple of decorations, but you look at those and go, 'Wow.' "

Popular culture focuses on the Medal of Honor and the Purple Heart, but one official reference for the Air Force alone lists some 80 different ribbons, all arranged in a precise order of precedence. The military speaks in terms of a "pyramid of honor," ranging from the Medal of Honor and other rare, prestigious decorations at the top, to the more common awards like the Good Conduct Medal in the middle, to awards from foreign governments, such as the Republic of Korea's Korean War Service Medal, at the bottom.

In fact, the pyramid has at least three smaller pyramids nestled inside, the contents of each awarded under different rules. Valor awards are given for exceptional courage under enemy fire. "Merit" awards are given for exceptional achievement in command, support, or administrative roles outside of combat.

"Entitlements" are given automatically to anyone who meets certain criteria, such as the Iraq Campaign Medal for all of those deployed to Iraq, or the Army's Combat Infantry Badge for foot soldiers who have seen combat. The Purple Heart awarded to wounded troops is one of these entitlements and technically is not a military decoration at all. Officially less prestigious than valor or merit medals, such ribbons are often more prized as visible symbols of a common trial by fire.

To add to the confusion, many decorations serve double duty as both valor and merit medals, with the identical ribbon distinguished only by the presence or absence of a tiny "V" medallion. But that quarter-inch-high letter spells a world of difference -- especially when it comes to the Bronze Star.

Before Sgt. Stone earned one of each kind, he recalled, "I didn't know there were two different types of Bronze Stars." Then Stone read his "meritorious" Bronze Star citation aloud to this reporter with some contempt and summed up: "That's, 'Thank you for coming to Iraq -- thank you for showing up and doing your job.' Platoon sergeants and above, all got meritorious Bronze Stars. People that didn't even leave our forward operating base got Bronze Stars."

But in Stone's company of 140 troops, only two others were awarded the Bronze Star with V.

Stone is not alone in his opinion. "We know the difference," said Army 1st Sgt. Gerald Wolford, a Silver Star recipient. "If we see a Bronze Star and there's no V on it, we're, like, 'OK, it doesn't mean you did anything. Go home, tell your story, get your Bronze Star license plate, but just realize that my private who didn't get anything did more than you did.' "

Some of this sentiment is the age-old resentment that fighting grunts feel for staff officers who stay in the rear. But by law -- enacted after the 1999 Kosovo war, when the Air Force triggered a controversy by awarding Bronze Stars to airmen stationed at bases in the U.S. -- even the Bronze Star without a V can be awarded only to troops sufficiently exposed to danger to rate "hostile fire" pay.

That standard definitely includes support troops in Iraq dodging mortar rounds on their bases or improvised bombs on the roads. And the meritorious Bronze Star is a common honor for crucial noncombat units such as bomb-disposal squads and hospital trauma teams, who do yeoman's work yet rarely get the glory.

"I saved roughly 120, 125 lives over there, all combat-related," said one recipient, Maj. Douglas Wayne Webb, an Air Force physician's assistant assigned to an Iraqi army base. "We had one bomb at the front gate of our facility hit 88 Iraqis."

Generous Army, Stingy Marines

Although all of the armed services give out more meritorious Bronze Stars than they do the valor version, the difference is most dramatic in the Army. The latest figures indicate that the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps combined have issued 1,765 Bronze Stars with V and almost three times as many, 5,257, without. For the Army, the figures are 1,698 Bronze Stars with V and more than 50,000 without.

Although the number of Bronze Stars for valor awarded by the Army nearly equals the total for the other services combined, in proportion to the Army's nearly 70 percent share of the total U.S. military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, it still falls far short. The 50,000 noncombat Bronze Stars, by contrast, make up more than 90 percent of those given out by all four services combined.

The available Army data on medals -- which involves only the troops currently on active duty -- suggest that about 80 percent of those meritorious Bronze Stars have gone to the highest-ranking 17 percent of the soldiers deployed. The comparable Air Force figures show that 85 percent were awarded to the top 27 percent of airmen deployed; for the Marines, 85 percent went to officers, who make up only 10 percent of leathernecks deployed.

This indicates that the Bronze Star for merit is essentially a management award for more-senior officers and the highest-ranking enlisted leaders -- most of whom are safely back in bases -- rather than an award for lower-ranking troops on the firing line.

This slant toward the higher ranks shows up, more subtly, with valor medals as well. Officers make up fewer than 10 percent of the marines deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan but received between 32 percent and 46 percent of each of the three most widely awarded valor medals: the Silver Star, the Bronze Star with V, and the Commendation Medal with V. (Marine databases did not allow more-precise rank-by-rank comparisons, and Navy databases are so limited that no rank analysis was possible.)

Army figures also show a striking bias toward the higher ranks that cannot be attributed to the limits of the data alone: The highest-ranking 17 percent of Army soldiers deployed (senior sergeants and midgrade officers) received 32 percent of the Army Commendation Medals with V, 65 percent of the more prestigious Bronze Stars with V, and 78 percent of the Silver Stars.

That pattern confirms countless anecdotes in which the commanding officer or the senior sergeant gets one award, his subordinates the next one down, and the fighting grunts the next one below that, all on the basis of what the military regards as greater responsibility on the part of higher-ranking troops. Simply put, the more prestigious a medal for valor, the more disproportionately the Army awards it to the higher ranks.

The Air Force, by contrast, awards valor medals in remarkably proportional numbers to the number of airmen serving in each rank. (It may not be a coincidence that the Air Force has the best electronic record-keeping to track whether such trends are out of line.) Compared with the other services, the Air Force's awards of each medal overall are in proportion to the number of personnel deployed.

But compare each service's valor awards to its number of deaths, the best measure of exposure to the dangers of war, and the picture changes. The Air Force and Navy combined account for less than 5 percent of the dead in Afghanistan and Iraq but together have handed out 18 percent of the total number of Silver Stars awarded by all the services, 30 percent of the Bronze Stars for valor, and 21 percent of the commendations for valor.

The Army, by contrast, has suffered 69 percent of the total deaths in the two wars but has awarded only 65 percent of the total number of Silver Stars, 49 percent of the Bronze Stars with V, and 40 percent of the Commendation Medals with V. That makes the Army not only less likely than the Air Force or the Navy to give out the higher awards, but also progressively more discriminating with progressively less-prestigious decorations (which tend to go to lower-ranking soldiers disproportionately).

The Marines are even more reserved about decorating their fighters. Leathernecks have made up only 12 percent of the U.S. forces deployed, yet account for a staggering 27 percent of deaths. But the Corps has awarded only 17 percent of the total number of Silver Stars, 21 percent of the Bronze Stars with V, and 39 percent of the Commendation Medals with V.

Not only are the Marines stingier with decorations than the Army overall, but, in a reverse of the Army pattern, the Corps is progressively more generous with lesser decorations at lower ranks.

Medals Bureaucracy

Do these discrepancies exist because of vaingloriousness by the Army and virtue by the Marines? That's hard to tell without a deep dissection of the ethos of each service, and a time-consuming reading of thousands of citations awarded over several years.

But much of the discrepancy is the unintended side effect of the medals process itself. Each service administers its own awards system, each with its own regulations interpreted by its own officers. Even the rules spelling out the degree of danger required to qualify for the V device are inconsistent, with the Army and the Marines being more restrictive, and the Air Force and the Navy less so.

The Marines and the Army, for example, even disagree on something as basic as the Purple Heart: A soldier gets it for being disoriented by a "level two" concussion, for example, while a marine is awarded one only for a more serious "level three," which means doctor-certified unconsciousness.

On concussions, surprisingly, many marines prefer the Army approach. The "knockouts-only" rule may give Purple Hearts to a few who sustain only minor injuries, but it eliminates from medal contention some marines who suffer appalling and abiding damage to internal organs by the shock wave of roadside bombs.

"We got a lot of kids out there that are walking around on crutches, and they're reported as having an 'abrasion and contusion,' which means that you don't get a Purple Heart," fumed Chief Warrant Officer Dunfee. "But a kid that gets a nick on his finger from shrapnel, he gets a Purple Heart."

Awards for extraordinary bravery naturally involve even more judgment calls than the ostensibly automatic "entitlements," such as the Purple Heart. And military regulations are not much help. The official standards for the Medal of Honor require "incontestable proof" of "gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his or her life above and beyond the call of duty."

The guidelines for the Distinguished Service Cross refer, unhelpfully, to "extraordinary heroism not justifying the award of a Medal of Honor ... [which] involved risk of life." The Silver Star drops the "risk of life" standard and instead cites "gallantry in action ... of a lesser degree than that required for the Distinguished Service Cross." The Bronze Star for valor calls for "heroism ... of a lesser degree than that required for the award of the Silver Star," while the Commendation Medal for valor refers to "acts of valor ... of lesser degree than required for award of the Bronze Star."

It is no wonder, then, that any particular award decision is heavily shaped by personal judgment and military tradition -- which varies not only from service to service but also, for example, between the infantry and the supply branches of the Army. That is, arguably, how it should be: There can be no standard checklist for acts of valor. Some aspects of the system, however, aggravate the inconsistencies at the expense of those most directly exposed to danger.

One obvious Catch-22 is that the more troops are in combat and in the field, the less energy they have to recommend each other for awards. It is those back at headquarters who have the time, the computers, and the skills to put together an impressive package of paperwork. Not so obviously, the less combat experience a unit has, the fewer the acts of valor its leaders have witnessed, and the more any particular action will stand out -- a cause of constant grumbling from the fighting grunts and of some self-doubt among rearguard support troops.

"I didn't feel I did anything special," said Staff Sgt. Justin Frewin, an Air Force explosives technician who spent months disarming roadside bombs. He saw three of his Army security escorts blown apart in the Humvee just behind his, and received the Bronze Star with V for driving into a mortar barrage to rescue a comrade.

"But I went back to Qatar" -- where his unit was based -- "and my flight chief there thought it was great and heroic and all that, and wrote it up [for a medal]. It went up through Air Force channels in Qatar," Frewin said. "But when you see Army personnel who are in Baghdad getting shot at every single day and they come home with no medals, that's upsetting to me."

Heroic Modesty

Far more Army grunts are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan than are Air Force specialists like Justin Frewin -- which is precisely why Frewin's deeds stand out more. For the same reason, it is a lot easier to notice the achievements of senior sergeants and commissioned officers, because they are fewer.

What's more, the paperwork recommending someone for an award usually starts with his or her immediate superior and then is reviewed by one higher headquarters after another, so the higher your rank the fewer hurdles your award recommendation has to clear before final approval.

Whether the end result is a Good Conduct Medal or the Medal of Honor, the process begins the same way, with a preprinted form. The Department of the Army Form 638, for example, includes blanks for name, rank, Social Security number, recommended award, and "specific bullet examples of meritorious acts or service," as well as a yes/no checkbox for "posthumous." Attached are two pages for reviewing officers' recommendations.

The more prestigious the award being considered, the higher up the chain of command Form 638 must go, and the greater the number of reviewers who must sign off in turn before it's finally approved.

"You decentralize as much as you can, consistent with your ability to ensure consistency," said Bill Carr, a retired Army officer who, as the Pentagon's deputy undersecretary of Defense for military personnel policy, is overseeing an interservice review of the awards system. "Caprice benefits no one. What we want to be very, very sure of, in honor of the military ethos, is that for the higher awards -- Silver Star and above -- we are clear, which equals consistent, which equals legitimate."

The problem with this understandable desire to give higher awards a higher level of review is not merely that it slows things down. It is that the final decision is pushed further and further away from those who have firsthand knowledge of the person and the action in question.

True, the more prestigious the award, the greater the number of after-action reports, narrative details, and eyewitness statements that get attached to the basic form. True, the "awards boards" that advise most senior commanders often request further documentation.

But there are no provisions, and no resources, for sending an expert to reinvestigate the scene of action or interview the eyewitnesses directly -- the way the military does routinely for, say, a friendly-fire incident, an aircraft crash, or a court-martial. That is one of the reasons why the paper trail is so much fainter, and publicity so much poorer, for acts of valor than for mishaps and misdeeds.

Even when the Army review board considering Paul Ray Smith's Medal of Honor requested confirming details, it left the legwork up to Smith's old unit. A few men who knew Smith made a major effort to get additional statements from the eyewitnesses -- all of whom were back in the United States by that point, some of them reassigned to other units.

For that matter, if not for the lull in the fighting after Baghdad fell, his unit might not have been able to put together the initial package of statements. Had Paul Ray Smith's comrades not gone the extra mile in his memory, his Medal of Honor might well have been downgraded for lacking the "incontestable proof" that regulations require.

It is no wonder, then, that many service members feel that well-deserved nominations for, say, the Silver Star fell through the cracks, especially in the first years of the war.

"If we trust a senior leader to command 20,000 soldiers in battle, we ought to show him a little deference that he knows if someone has done something brave or not," said Russell, the retired lieutenant colonel. "What right does a bunch of colonels sitting there in the safety of the staff office with their asses shaped like a chair have to recommend that the guy's not worthy?"

No number of reviews and regulations can substitute for firsthand knowledge. And clear eyewitness testimony is a precious commodity after a battle. "There were acts of heroism I don't think anybody got awarded for," Master Sgt. Hollenbaugh said, recounting the Falluja battle for which he and his unit's medic both received the Distinguished Service Cross. "I didn't witness all of them, and those guys that I did witness, I didn't even know all their names. When I see my DSC, I think of those guys."

Again and again, troops who have been decorated for valor say they wear their medals in honor of those who have not been so recognized. "I was, like, 'Honestly, I don't feel I deserve it,' " Frewin, the Air Force explosives technician, recalled telling his Explosives Ordnance Disposal unit commander. "And he was, like, 'Yes, you deserve it. You can't think of it so much as a personal medal, but for the E.O.D. community. We're out there doing great things, and we don't get recognized.' "

Again and again, troops who play down their own awards speak proudly of their comrades' medals. "People talk about my Silver Star, and the Silver Star is great, my kids think it's neat," said 1st Sgt. Wolford, who, in an unusual Army publicity effort, became a character in the online video game "America's Army: Real Heroes," accompanied by a collectible action figure bearing his facial features.

"But that says, 'Look what I did this one day,' " he continued. What Wolford prefers to brag about are the four Bronze Stars for valor awarded to his seven-man squad for their acts on that same day in 2003. "Those other guys getting their Bronze Stars means so much more to me."

In the end, America's fighting men and women wear their medals for the same reason that they earned them: to preserve the lives and memory of their comrades.