I recently shot my mouth off with indignance over presidential contender Lindsey Graham’s Bronze Star for “meritorious service in his role as a senior legal advisor to the Air Force during combat operations in Afghanistan from August 2009 to July 2014.” I know a soldier who earned a Bronze Star in Iraq, and he earned his while being shot at by the enemy. I made my usual sarcastic comments of derision at the idea of a politician with presidential ambition receiving the same medal as my friend did, but as a lawyer for staff work instead actual combat action.
Some veteran friends of mine brought to my attention that there is a Bronze Star for Valor…and a Bronze Star for Meritorious Service. They call each the Bronze Star, and they look essentially the same, but the one awarded for valor has a ‘V’ device superimposed on the ribbon. The Bronze Star for Valor is awarded for combat actions. The Bronze Star for Meritorious Service awarded for non-combat actions.
I stepped back for a moment to reevaluate my position. I have to admit that I learned of Lindsey Graham’s Bronze Star through an NPR news story, not through any of Graham’s campaign materials. Okay. I guess he wasn’t trying to make political hay out of this. Maybe I need to cut the guy a little slack on this one.
I decided to find out a little bit more about Bronze Stars awarded for meritorious service. I found one quickly. Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer earned a Bronze Star for meritorious service as an Army nurse in Viet Nam. According to her memoir, Serving in Silence, she had been a captain and head nurse of a neurosurgical intensive-care unit. This unit was the first in Viet Nam to deal with this type of advanced care. The ward that Captain Cammermeyer had come from was a regular medical ward with its share of injured soldiers, but also a high percentage of soldiers there for other non-combat related illnesses. Every person in the neurosurgical intensive-care ward was there for head and spinal wounds. One of the issues with head and spinal issues is the patient’s ability to breathe on his own. This was often the determining factor in when the patient could be flown out. A patient had to be breathing on his own before he could be transferred to Japan for further care. If he wasn’t, he wouldn’t be able to physically handle the cabin pressure and altitude of the flight. Many times a patient never regained the ability to breathe on his own, and the doctors had to make end of life decisions. When the doctors decided that further care was useless and ordered a patient to be taken off of the respirator, Captain Cammermeyer, as head nurse, always assumed this duty herself. She never delegated this unpleasant task. She also changed some policies and procedures on the ward to maintain some sort of death with dignity. She served during the Tet offensive of 1968. At the end of her tour, Captain Cammermeyer’s commanding officer awarded her the Bronze Star. Since she technically was not in combat, it was not an award for valor, but for meritorious service. I think we can all agree that her service in bringing aid and comfort to our wounded soldiers, and tending to the welfare of her staff, was deserving of some sort of recognition, and the Bronze Star for Meritorious Service was appropriate. (I’ll have more to say about Col. Cammermeyer at a later time.)
I discovered some other things while researching the Bronze Star.
The system for awarding medals has never been perfect. This sounds obvious, but sometimes we forget. When the Bronze Star was first created in WW2, it was indeed awarded for valor. It was created as a response to another award. The Air Medal had been created by the Army Air Force to award combat air crews. This gave them some sort of recognition for the hard job they did and helped support morale. This started a problem in that infantry soldiers felt that the ‘glamorous Hollywood fly boys’ were getting special recognition. The Bronze Star was created as a counterpart to the Air Medal. When it was first awarded, units were ordered to put a certain number of men in for the award. This created an issue in many front line units. Company commanders reported that sometimes every man in his unit had done some act of bravery worthy of the award. They were told to pick only one or two. At first, it was a case of soldiers not getting a medal in spite of valorous acts that probably deserved one.
This raised a problem with non-combat troops. They were left out of the picture, because not being in the front lines, they had no way to win this award. Morale dropped. This might sound like a trite issue, but it really wasn’t. Medals on a soldier’s record could influence promotion or duty assignment. At the end of the war, medals got a soldier extra points that would help him or her get home sooner. Someone decided to award Bronze Stars for Meritorious Service, and all soldiers could be eligible for this award, and everyone was happy.
But, human nature being what it is…
Controversy has recently arisen concerning award policies, especially for the Air Force and the Navy. People have been awarded Bronze Stars for what some people consider to be frivolous reasons. Stars and Stripes magazine ran a series of stories in 2000 about Bronze Stars awarded for the air campaign in Yugoslavia to people nowhere close to a combat zone, and for actions hardly rising to the level of above and beyond the call of duty. A lieutenant colonel allegedly received his Bronze Star for “responding to supply requests at a moment’s notice” at an air base in Italy, far removed from the combat missions in Yugoslavia. Another senior officer allegedly received his for “presenting his bed-down briefing to top brass…on where troops and aircraft were being positioned at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.” One airman observed that “Sadly, the system has become overinflated, where people expect them when they are basically just doing their job.”
Sadly, while many of our finest men and women in uniform continue to rise above and beyond the call of duty to perform heroic deeds, the awarding of decorations remains at least partially a political process. Which brings us back to Lindsey Graham. When I see that his Bronze Star is for meritorious service in his role as a senior legal advisor to the Air Force, I have to ask myself if ‘legal advisor’ falls closer to Colonel Cammermeyer’s non-combat duty as a nurse in Viet Nam, or as a bed-down briefing officer in Germany. I’m not saying he went out of his way to ‘get his ticket stamped’ on the way to higher political office. We’ll see as the campaign season progresses, if his camp plays the Bronze Star-winner card while campaigning.
And that’s just the way I see it.