The awards system is broken.
The Marines have a reputation for being relatively stingy on awards, and I think this is still relatively true.
I’ve been told by field grade officers who I confide in that these practices are all part of the system. It’s how the game is played. It’s all politics. Sure, it’s dirty, but everybody does it.
What these field grades are saying may be true, but it’s surely not right.
Here are some what-ifs. On my most recent deployment I had the distinct pleasure of writing an award for one of the most outstanding NCOs in the Marine Corps: Sergeant K. This Marine was stellar in every sense. He demanded and received respect from peers, subordinates, and superiors. His technical MOS skills were better than most Gunnery Sergeants I know of in the same MOS. He displayed outstanding physical fitness and moral rectitude. Superior in just about every catagory. I rated him first out of 17 Sergeants I have reported on. He was a Marine who made it a pleasure to write fitreps and awards. I wrote him up for a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal (or NAM, in the service parlance).
During the same deployment and some weeks later I found out that:
- 90% of the Quality Assurance Section of the Maintenance Department had been submitted for the NAMs.
- Several Lance Corporals were receiving Certificates of Commendation for going to the Base PX in Iraq to pick up submarine sandwiches and pizza for the superbowl party. (note that these Marines were doing NOTHING beyond their normal duties to bring success in combat. Consequently, these Marines are being awarded for doing NOTHING).
Working in an awards system like this, either I’m the bad guy by not writing my Marines up for awards that their peers under different officers are being recommended for. Or I can let the standards degrade and write awards for all of the Marines in my detachment, like the Quality Assurance Marines. There are so many awards that Marines feel entitled to them.
Awards are taking away from the title of Marine. Too often we judge Marines and servicemembers for the ribbons and medals on their chest. We need to get back to the existential value of being a Marine, and get away from the meaningless regalia of nylon ribbons for PowerPoint slide construction.
One Major Peter F. Owen wrote an article called The Institutionalization of Festoonery in the same April, 2000 issue of The Marine Corps Gazette. (The good Major is probably out of the Marines or significantly promoted by now.) In the article the author admits that the bulk of the awards available to Marines are probably here to stay (some awards, for example, are awarded in the name of the President of the United States or the Secretary of the Navy, and action by Headquarters Marine Corps will not get rid of these awards). The author’s suggests instead that Marines only wear certain awards that enhance the value of the uniform (Bronze Stars, Silver Stars, Air Medals, etc.), and exclude trite awards such as National Defense Service Medals, Meritorious Service Medals, Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals, to name a few. Maj Owen would allow Marines to continue to wear unit awards and campaign medals, as these undoubtedly add to the Marine Corps heritage. Maj Owen’s recommendation’s are worthy.
Marine Colonel Thomas X. Hammes in the same issue of The Marine Corps Gazette advocates removal of all non-combat awards. There is precident for this, when the Medal of Honor was subject to recall in the early 1900s due to awarding criteria becoming too liberal.
The other services have similar problems on their hands. The Army uses the Army Achievement Medal (the service equivalent of the NAM submitted for Sgt K.) as punishment.
What can you do? The current uniform regulations allow for Marines to not wear any medals or ribbons on some service uniforms, or allow for Marines to wear only personal awards and unit awards. Go ahead and wear that lonely NAM and Combat Action Ribbon and omit your National Defense Service Medal and the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal (two entirely redundant awards, as they are awarded for being on active duty in the period since September 11th). Forego the Sea Service Deployment Ribbon. When your fellow Marines ask you why you’re not wearing all of your awards, tell them the truth.
You can also think about the good of the Marine Corps when you are writing awards. I have explained to Marines who have approached me on why I’m stingy with awards to research the battle of Tarawa (Utmost Savagry, by Alexander is a good volume). Barely 5% of all Marines involved in that bloody fight were recognized by an award of any type, including Letters of Commendation by the Commanding General (which are paper awards with no companion medal). Be stingy about awards, and tell your Marines that you’re upholding the heritage of the Marine Corps by doing so. And tell them about how important an honor it is to just be a Marine. It is an honor indeed.
Let your reputation speak for you rather than the nylon on your chest. And let the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor (or whatever your service emblem), speak to your professionalism.