Bronze Star loses its luster in Iraq war

Scripps Howard News Service

In the hierarchy of military medals, the Bronze Star ranks in the top tier. But in the war on terror, some troops have been honored with the medal for going above and beyond the call of duty, while others received it for just getting the job done.

For example, the Bronze Star has been awarded to:

  • Army Lt. Col. Andrew MacDonald, Soldier Systems Center chief of staff, for leading a team of military and civilians in delivering equipment to troops in Iraq.
  • U.S. Army Reserve Maj. Patrick Burke for "transporting a hospital" from Pakistan to Afghanistan with "no pilferage or incident."
  • Marine Cmdr. Alan Hansen, deputy force chaplain, for fulfilling his role as adviser and confidant to service members of all faiths during his deployment in Iraq.
  • Navy Yeoman 1st Class Matthew S. Bryan for "repeatedly being under fire in Iraqi convoys," but also for planning a party the =– "Seabee Ball" — in Baghdad.

As the fourth-highest medal, the Bronze is awarded for heroism or "meritorious achievement or service." According to the Military Awards Manual, a "meritorious" Bronze Star medal is given to individuals whose acts are "well above the expected performance of duty." For particular acts of bravery, military members receive a Bronze Star for Valor.

In the war on terror, the military has been generous. More than 47,000 Bronze Star medals have been awarded for Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, the Wartime Award Statistics by the Military Awards Branch shows.

That is substantially more than the 30,000 Bronze Star medals given during the Korean War– a war that involved triple the amount of troops and approximately 20 times more casualties.

About 500,000 troops have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more than 2,600 U.S. soldiers have been killed.

On the other hand, during the Korean War — sometimes referred to as the Forgotten War_ more than 1.7 million U.S. troops served there, and more than 54,000 died, according to the Directorate for Information Operations and Reports in Washington.

Military experts offer some explanations for the difference in numbers. For one, military sociologist David R. Segal explained that for a service member to receive a Bronze Star, he or she must have been in "combat"; however, that word has changed in meaning.

"In the Korean War, the soldiers were in the front line fighting the enemy," said Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland. "But in the Iraqi war, anybody who steps out on ground is considered to be ‘in combat.’ "

Another reason is that a close-knit infantry is fighting in the current wars, something different from previous wars. Military expert Paul Camacho said the solidarity of the soldiers easily catches the eye of the awards committee.

"There is quite a bit of heroism. Many soldiers (in Iraq) volunteer to continue to be overseas," said Camacho, director of special projects in the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequence at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. "There is a lot of patriotism and camaraderie among soldiers because they are in units and get to know each other more."

The Army _ which awards the great majority of Bronze Stars_ defends its policies and stands behind the decisions of citing "meritorious achievement or service."

"The Soldier’s chain of command is fully capable of reviewing the achievements behind each award and ensuring that adequate measures are in place for awards to be approved, commensurate with a Soldier’s achievements," said Denise Harris, chief of policy for the Army Awards Branch in the Adjutant General Directorate, via e-mail. "The decision to approve any award, for any soldier, is really a chain of command issue and has worked well in all of our conflicts."

The Bronze has lost its top-tier status for some soldiers as well. As Camacho pointed out, soldiers care more about getting the job done than receiving a decoration. Former Army Black Hawk helicopter pilot Rick Hinshaw was deployed to Iraq with the 101st Airborne from February 2003 to January 2004, and to Kuwait with 3rd Army HQ from August 2004 to January 2005. He received a Bronze Star, but already misplaced it.

"Most soldiers get a medal and forget about it and drive on with the mission. The people who draw attention to their medals are usually people with an agenda, and that infuriates most soldiers," Hinshaw said via e-mail.