New US military medals policy: What is the meaning of valor?

The Pentagon announced Wednesday it would tighten medal criteria to better reflect distinctions between combat and non-combat roles.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
In this March 25, 2015, file photo, Jon Meis of Renton, Wash., right, is presented with an award by Medal of Honor recipient Medal of Honor recipient Patrick Brady. The military announced Wednesday it would tighten medal criteria to reflect distinctions between combat and non-combat roles.

A new policy announced Wednesday by the US Department of Defense changes the medal system in part by distinguishing between combat and non-combat roles.

Whereas the Pentagon could previously award the Bronze Star medal to any individual whose service was exemplary, whether or not they entered a combat zone or even left the United States, the Bronze Star will now be restricted to valor in combat, Andrew Tilghman wrote for the Military Times.

Stephen Allison, who served in the US Army Medical Department on active duty for 25 years, says in a phone interview that he always thought the awards were reserved for combat soldiers, because in the Army, they generally were. The changes are designed to clear up ambiguity between the branches of the American armed services, which awarded medals differently.

Individuals can still receive a Meritorious Service Medal for excellent service in non-combat areas, but both the Bronze Star and a new "C" marker added to another medal will indicate acts of valor in combat only. The "V" marker, which is not new, will now recognize a specific act of valor from a recognized incident, according to the Military Times:

Medal policy on the Bronze Star has been criticized for years as ambiguous. In some cases, the medal is affixed with a “V” for valor and reflects courageous and potentially life-saving acts of bravery under fire. Yet in other cases, it is awarded for “meritorious service” that could be, essentially, a desk job in a deployed setting. In the 1990s, some service members with peripheral duties related to operations in Kosovo received Bronze Stars without ever leaving the U.S.

This distinction between combat and non-combat roles is something Mr. Allison remembers well from his military service, but as someone in the "third tier" of the services who "was never sent into harm's way," he says most of the medals he received, including several Meritorious Service Medals, were mostly "a nice 'atta boy."

"If I knew I was treating someone who was a Medal of Honor recipient there was a certain aura, because that person is a hero," Allison says. "But anything less than that, you wouldn't really know [unless they were in dress uniform]."

The changes to the medal system speak to what Allison experienced by distinguishing between combat and non-combat awards, but they are not the only change to the medal system following debate over combat and non-combat awards. The Department of Defense established the Distinguished Warfare Medal or "Nintendo" medal in 2013 to award pilots who operate drones in Afghanistan from the safety of Nevada, Anna Mulrine reported for The Christian Science Monitor.

The medal came above the Bronze Star in precedence and, after criticism, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel overturned it. Drone pilots, but not their corresponding research analysts, can soon receive a new "R" medal device to decorate their battle ribbons, Tara Copp reported for Stars and Stripes.

The changes show how seriously the military takes the medal system; it honors a job well done in the armed forces and speaks to an individual's service in a way even civilians can understand. 

"When you join the military, you effectively turn your life over to America; you have begun the trip into the Valley of Death," B.G. Burkett, author of "Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes and Its History," told The Christian Science Monitor's Lee Lawrence. "They don't give you stock options or million-dollar bonuses. You get minimal pay, and the only true accolades you get are campaign medals; or if you did something mildly heroic, you get a Bronze Star."

Military medals become important after the return home because of their reputation even in civilian company. 

"The second you say you're a highly decorated veteran, they don't just think you're brave," Mr. Burkett told The Christian Science Monitor. "You're trustworthy, you're patriotic, you're loyal, you're reliable."

Allison says although the importance of the individual medals varies and their respective ribbons varies, they can also be a way to take someone's measure at a glance.

"If someone had just a few medals you would think they either hadn't been in the military for very long, or if they had, they really hadn't done much," he says.

Allison remembers hearing from a teacher whose experience with combat soldiers was more extensive that he could "usually assess a person's entire experience in the military from a single glance at the medals on a Class A uniform."

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