The Other Stolen Valor

| May 22, 2019

The people at War on the Rocks published an interesting article labeling unrecognized heroism in recent years as a form of stolen valor.

According to the U.S. military, relatively few heroes have fought in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although more than 2.7 million servicemembers have served on more than 5.4 million deployments since 2001, the number of military awards for valor has reached historic lows. This steep decline is not necessarily because modern combat has become less intense; Pentagon data shows that almost 5,500 servicemembers have been killed in action since 2001, and more than 52,000 have been wounded in action. Instead, a major reason for the striking dearth of awards is also an unexpected one: The U.S. military has changed how it thinks about heroism.

The authors, David Barno and Nora Bensahel, go on to point out…

The pendulum has swung too far in the wrong direction, and needs to be corrected. Those who acted heroically in the recent wars deserve to be formally recognized for doing so. Moreover, the military services need to ensure that standards for duty have not become so high that heroism cannot be distinguished from duty. There are at least three ways to begin to address this problem.

They do have a point – if you go back to the early 1900s-mid 1900s, Medal of Honors were awarded to men that carried sensitive messages (Boxer Rebellion) and others who helped with a boiler fire (USS Bennington).

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Category: Afghanistan, Iraq, Valor

Comments (43)

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  1. Martinjmpr says:

    True, wasn’t that also when the MoH was pretty much the ONLY medal that could be awarded for valor? You either got a MoH or a hearty handshake and a slap on the back – no in between.

    I can’t help but wonder about the WWII veterans who came back from 3+ years of heavy fighting with, at most, a single row of ribbons (most of which were campaign medals) and what they must think of the modern day buck sergeant with two deployments under his belt and a ribbon rack worthy of a Soviet Field Marshal.

    • Slick Goodlin says:

      Actually there once was something sort of “in between”, a MOH and a handshake in the old U.S Army.

      I happen to be reading, “Regular Army O!: Soldiering on the Western Frontier, 1865–1891”, by Douglas C. McChristian.

      There was the odd practice of brevet rank, giving a soldier a higher rank title as a reward for gallantry or meritorious conduct but without conferring the authority, precedence, or pay of real rank.

      • Mason says:

        The MoH was, during the Civil War and through the Spanish-American War, really the only medal for valor. Brevet ranks were awarded, mostly to officers, for exceptional performance.

        There was also the little known Certificate of Merit (later made into the Certificate of Merit Medal). It predates the MoH, and was awarded more than 500 times during the Mexican-American War.

        During the Indian Wars it resurfaced. The criteria were distinguished service, in action or otherwise. So it is probably comparable to a Distinguished Service Medal or the Distinguished Service Cross, depending on what the citation was for.

        After WWI, people were allowed to exchange their Certificate of Merit Medal for a DSM. In 1934 they could exchange it for a DSC (even those previously converted to a DSM).

  2. Mason says:

    Being one of the resident valor researchers, I can confirm. We are giving out very few valor awards for Iraq and A-stan. The ones that we are giving out, compared to past conflicts (Vietnam and earlier) are lower.

    I have an upcoming article about a Green Beret CWO who got a Silver Star (now been upgraded) for leading the charge on a fire fight that saved a bunch of hostages (continuing well after he was repeatedly injured).

    I think in the years after Vietnam we as a military culture have deified these high awards, particularly the MoH but also the service crosses. We have a bureaucracy that thinks that you have to do something like Desmond Doss, Dr. Ben Salomon, or Audie Murphy to earn a MoH. Set some impossible standard to meet that then trickles down. So now we have what would have warranted a MoH in past wars being recognized with a Silver Star. What would have earned a SS being rewarded with a BSM w/ Valor, or more commonly a commendation medal with valor.

    Thankfully there have been reviews that have resulted in a good many awards being upgraded. I think doing it 5, 10, 15+ years later is far too little for our troops. Spectacular performance needs to be rewarded immediately and loudly. It should serve as an inspiration to our fellow troops. We do this nicely with poor performance, showing immediate and public consequences for actions, now let’s do it for positive things.

    I know, I’m preaching to the choir.

    • 5th/77th FA says:

      ^word^

    • Sparks says:

      Well said Sir. Thank you. I have always believed there has been far more valor displayed than was being sent up the line for consideration and award.

    • Eden says:

      Do you think it has anything to do with the red tape and hoop-jumping and mountain of paperwork that it takes to get the higher awards? Has that increased significantly since, say, Vietnam? (Serious question.)

    • Slow Joe says:

      I disagree.

      You shouldn’t give medals for just doing your duty. This would cheapen the hard work that goes into just doing your duty when others won’t.

      This current wave of upgrading awards means friggin GEN Perkins (ret) will get his undeserved SS for being the first BN commander to make it to Bag-a-dad in 2003 upgraded to MoH.

      You are opening a can of worms that will benefit officers long before it trickles down.

      Not to mention a bunch of awards for just doing your damn job.

      • A Proud Infidel®™ says:

        You mean like 2LT’s that got a BSM for keeping the coffee pot full in HQ while Grunts like me and my Compadres got ARCOM’s for EOT awards? I saw BSM’s get handed out like candy from a Shriner’s parade float to E7 and above!

        • Mason says:

          Being a military history buff, I was in for at least three years when I learned the BSM could be awarded meritoriously for “combat zone” service. To me it was always a combat award. Then the whole wing got called for an awards ceremony where they gave it to a full bird colonel who came back from a cushy deployment, never having left the wire.

          To me, combat valor awards should never have rank being a factor, unless it’s as an element of the event where a lower ranking person takes charge and excelling.

          • rgr769 says:

            The BSM should only be awarded for meritorious service in combat, not for serving your tour as a REMF without stepping on your crank.

            • Jacob says:

              I was told that was the original intent of the BSM for meritorious service. It was supposed to be for the grunt out there,coming under fire and doing what had to be done. I have seen people who spent their entire tour behind a desk recieving a BSM, or CIB/CMB.

        • USMC Steve says:

          As long as they didn’t have a “V” device, I don’t concern myself too much on that score.

      • Mason says:

        Who said anything about people getting combat valor awards for doing their duty? What I’m seeing in my research is that in past conflicts, we awarded higher medals than we are today.

        For example, SFC Alwyn Cashe in 2005 went back into a burning vehicle after an IED strike. His uniform soaked with fuel, he sustained fatal burns going back to the vehicle repeatedly to save his men. He got a Silver Star.

        Contrast that with Douglas MacArthur giving every man who was a part of the PT boat squadron that got him out of the Philippines a Silver Star. Did they take great personal risk? Absolutely. I’d argue anyone taking to a PT boat from 8 Dec, 1941 until the fall of the islands in May, 1942 deserves at least a Silver Star for the balls it took to do so. Is the courage they expressed equal to that demonstrated by SFC Cashe? I’d argue no, that he’s well deserving of a much higher award.

        • AnotherPat says:

          SFC Cashe’s SS definitely needs to be upgraded.

          Thank You, Mason, for this information.

        • Just An Old Dog says:

          At the end of WW2 every single Soldier who earned a CIB was also awarded a Bronze Star.

      • AnotherPat says:

        Slow Joe, AKA Y:

        I remembered you and I had this discussion reference Perkins receiving his SS.

        I asked you if you were in the Box at the beginning of OIF.

        You never answered my question.

        Which tells me you were not.

        Again, I was there. I know all about then COL Perkins forward movement into Iraq in 2003 with his unit before and after.

        This is so sad that you still hold animosity toward him. I doubt very seriously General Perkins’ SS will be upgraded to a MOH.

        Maybe your SS will be upgraded to a Distinguished Cross.

        Would that make you happier?

        COL Perkins did not make himself the Brigade Commander. He was selected. He also was selected to be the lead Brigade going forward by my Chain of Command in conjunction with his Chain of Command and CENTCOM. He did not submit himself for a SS. His Chain of Command did. The Awards Board approved it.

        Same process how you received your SS. Same process my Soldiers went thru when I recommended them for awards for OEF and OIF.

        And if you think a Soldier should not receive an award “for doing their job”, then why did you accept your SS? Or any other awards?

        You are an NCO. You are taught to take care of your troops. Are you saying you would not recommend any awards for Soldiers who worked under/for you?

        You can’t have it both ways, i.e. saying General Perkins received an “unearned” SS, yet you received and accepted one.

        How do we know yours may be “unearned” as well?

        So sad to continue reading your bitterness. And yes, I know all about the Soldiers being killed and not receiving a SS. And again, there has to be a reason why an Awards Board did not recommend them for the SS.

        How about this: If we get involve in another conflict and your Chain of Command decides that you will go forward first and later recommends you for a Valor award, why don’t you turn it down.

        Because, you know, you were doing your job.

        And please ensure none of your Soldiers receive Valor Awards because they were doing their job as well.

        Sheesh…

        perkinslivesinyourhead

  3. 5th/77th FA says:

    Good Article SB, and agree with martinjmpr. Papa went thru the entire Normandy Campaign thru the end of the war in the ETO. Including Bastogne, The Rhine Campaign, and elsewhere. Btry C 741st FA. (36th FA Group) There’s some Google Foo stuff out there for those interested. Supposedly liberated some POW and concentration camps, captured a headquarters group, all this while bringing the dam dam down with the big 8in guns. Not much bling compared to what you’ll see during say, DS. He never spoke of it much at all.

    You look at the records of MoH during the War Between The States and you’ll see that many were awarded for simply picking up an orphaned Confederate Battle Flag. Now days, I’m glad I was never in a potential MoH awardable situation. Sure glad I didn’t get the “I forgot to duck award.”

    • AnotherPat says:

      5th/77th FA commented:

      “He never spoke of it much at all.”

      Yep. The ones that truly been there, done that are often silent on their Service or awards.

      So different from embellishers or liars.

      Thank you for sharing about your Dad’s experiences, 5th.

      greatestgeneration

      • 5th/77th FA says:

        Only time Papa mentioned the war at all was when we had gone to the drive in, a real treat for our Family. It was $1.00 carload night, premiering of D Day. Mama wanted to see it cause of all the big time Hollywood Leading Men. He had gone to sleep right after it started and didn’t wake up till the intermission when Mama escorted the other young’uns to the snak bar/restroom. She left me to “watch the car and your Daddy”. I made mention, Daddy you missing the motion picture and he just looked at me kinda strange like and said “Son, I saw this as it was happening, I know how it ends.” Just a few weeks later he was killed in his truck wreck. When asked, much later, Mama told us that he had never discussed anything he saw or did, but on occasion “he’d have bad dreams.” Two of the guys that served with him wrote “A History of Charlie Batter”, a copy on file at Carlisle Barracks. My older Brother (retired wingwiper Chief) has a pdf and some other stuff he researched along with his BS with V and other Awards. Brother’s middle name is in honor of the LT of C Btry that was killed in action on 5 May 1945. I kinda created an issue with the other brothers when I insisted that he would keep custody of these things. I felt it only right, even if he was an Air Force puke. He’s leaving Dakota in a few days for a Family Reunion I’m hosting here at Firebase Magnolia, just put a call in to tell him to bring the items with him. Maybe we can figure out how to make a posting on TAH.

        We’ve had tanks and planes and ships and boats and valor thieves, but no where near enough coverage on The King of Battle/The Winner of Wars….Well other than me striving for a 3 pete of FIRSTs on the TAH Weekend Open Thread. Oiling up my F5 key as we speak. Welcome Home!

        • The Stranger says:

          Oh jeez, you were doing so well. Almost brought a tear to my eye…and then you had to go and bring up the arty stuff again. 🤣 Just remember, “Artillery moves by leave of the ground, but WE are the men that do something all round.”
          Signed,
          Artillery’s Pappy (The Engineer)

          • AnotherPat says:

            The Stranger and 5th/77th:

            BOTH your comments brought a BIG Grin to my face…

            5th: I know you were proud of your Dad. He was King of Battle as well…and yes, when I read your story, have to admit I got a lump in my throat…

            And then the Engineer, AKA The Stranger, came in with those EN skills…and the lump became a tear…and then laughter…

            You guys rock.

            Now it’s time for the Queen of Battle, Wire Dawgs and Supply Daddies to come in with their comments on supporting the King of Battle…

            fireforeffect

          • 5th/77th FA says:

            Cheeze wheelie kers Dad Vader, we’ve had this talk before. You, de prime Pappy, knows beyond any doubt that whatever the Engineer builds, the King of Battle will be the FIRST to blow it all over hell and half of Missouri. NOTHING can be built that the Winner of Wars can’t take out. And now-a-days, don’t even need a spotter round. And no matter what platform we use, be it towed, self propelled, man portable, Aerial, Floating, or siloed, we are still THE King of Battle. Still bringing Dignity to what would otherwise be considered a vulgar brawl.

            • USMC Steve says:

              Dude, arty is nice to have around, but the only branch that is indespensible is infantry. Arty cannot take and hold ground, tac air cannot take and hold ground, and engineers, well, engineers. Infantry can do without all of them, and get the job done, but none of them can do without infantry.

            • The Stranger says:

              Ok, King of Battle. Just remember, you can’t “Time on target” your way across a river…🤣
              Signed,
              Artillery’s Pappy

  4. Sj says:

    A serious question since I’m a geezer and haven’t heard a shot in anger since VN: were there less close combat events than in the past? Drones, better CAS, better indirect fires?

    • Mason says:

      I have no hard and fast numbers, but I think A-stan/Iraqi insurgency and Vietnam have a lot in common from a ground combat perspective. Similar hunt and destroy patrols, ambushes, and IEDs.

      Very dissimilar from Korea, WWII, and most wars past which had a distinguishable front line (and end objective).

    • Martinjmpr says:

      War has undoubtedly gotten “smaller” since WW1 and WW2.

      Think about it: In WW1 and WW2 we had front lines hundreds of miles long and extended battles between Army GROUPS of 3 or 4 Armies, 6 or 8 Corps and perhaps two dozen Divisions.

      Then during the Korean war, it wasn’t unusual to have Division sized battles where one or two divisions on each side battled it out.

      By Vietnam, battles were mostly Regiment or Battalion sized affairs.

      Desert Storm was a brief aberration – there were some Brigade-size battles there but they didn’t last long before the Iraqis were wiped out or driven from the field.

      But our current wars in the Middle East rarely involve components of more than one battalion and often they are company or even platoon-sized elements fighting against an enemy of similar size.

      Just by way of comparison, consider that the “Battle of Mogadishu” in 1993 which saw a reinforced Company sized element of Rangers and Delta taking on an estimated 500 – 1000 enemy fighters and sustaining 18 KIA. It was a big enough fight at the time that it changed US policy towards Somalia and was made into a book and later a movie.

      But during Vietnam a battle that lasted a single day and claimed 18 American lives would have been a footnote on Page 4 of the local paper. During WWII it would probably only have been reported in unit histories and maybe not even then.

  5. I have my father’s unit history online, and I am willing to post and host any others. Please e-mail me if you are interested.

    I am trying to enhance the information content of the unit history with maps, photos, and other data. I would also do that with any hosted materials.

    • AnotherPat says:

      Charles:

      Wow. Really enjoyed your Website. Learned alot today from reading it.

      Thank you for sharing your Dad’s unit history with us.

      Perhaps you can volunteer to be the TAH Historian when one needs info on certain units?

      Thank You again.

    • Mason says:

      I’m with Pat. Great read, Charles. Thanks.

  6. Comm Center Rat says:

    Then there are those like Brevet LTC Thomas Ward Custer whose bravery is overshadowed by the fame of a publicity seeking older sibling. A younger brother of Brevet MG George Armstrong Custer, Tom was the first man to be awarded two Medals of Honor, both for capturing Confederate regimental flags in the Civil War. He is one of just nineteen two time winners in US history.

    Tom perished with his brothers George and Boston Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn on Last Stand Hill, June 25, 1876. Tom Custer is buried at Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery in Kansas.

    • AnotherPat says:

      Am glad you addressed Tom Custer.

      Everything you said is so true.

      Some folks still believe George was still a MG at the Battle of the Little Horn.

      Thank you again for sharing about Tom and Boston.

      neverforget

      • 5th/77th FA says:

        CCR, ditto what AP said. Another brother named Tom that gave a good accounting of himself was Joshua Chamberlain’s kid brother. 20th Maine, Little Round Top/Devil’s Den Gettysburg and on thru the War. And both, unlike Artie Custer were not self centered, egotistical maniacs.

        IMO Custer got what he deserved…His brothers and the men with him…not so much. Artie wouldn’t have even kept his LTC rank if his wife Libby hadn’t of charmed certain higher Big Army and congress critters.

  7. 26Limabeans says:

    The word “conspicuous” shows up in a lot of citations. People saw what happened. It was documented and somebody followed up.
    These are the examples that everyone sees.

    Just imagine the acts of valor that went unoticed but for the fallen who cannot speak.
    We need to point out the acts that we can with the knowledge it is but a sample of a much larger group.

  8. OldCorpsTanker72 says:

    I’m not sure I’m buying this line. I went to a concert by the Air Force’s Singing Sergeants one time, and it looked like everyone up there was Audie Murphy. Come to find out, some of the awards were for winning certain musical competitions. I’ve seen people come back from deployments to Kuwait with several medals, just for going. And I’ve seen people come back from Viet Nam with a Silver Star as a consolation prize for getting killed. There’s really no rhyme or reason as to who gets medals, and why. It seems to depend who is writing it up. You can tell me I’m wrong, but I’m not sure you can convince me.

    • Mason says:

      Valor awards are being issued less or in lower grades. Meritorious (or even basically competent) performance awards are being issued en-masse.

      USAF we now graduate basic with at least three ribbons, two of which are medals. If you shoot expert or are honor grad, you could have almost two full rows of ribbons and you haven’t even started serving!

  9. Just An Old Dog says:

    I would venture to say that lack of valor awards probably are due to a lot of the action that servicemen are seeing is IEDs and random snipers and shelling.
    Bravery would be more like the case cited above with the Soldier running to retrieve wounded comrades with fires burning.
    It’s hard to face an enemy that’s not there. Even harder to write a citation about it.

  10. SGT Ted says:

    It was spoken policy that the BSM for service was awarded to E-7 and above for EOT awards when I did my tour in 2003-04 in Iraq. E-6 and below got an ARCOM. Dicksteppers got bupkiss. I never saw any written policy supporting that.

  11. Stacy0311 says:

    I’ve noticed a change in the type actions that have been recognized with a MoH.

    Go back and look at WWII, Korea and Vietnam. They were often earned by killing a shit ton of enemies in creative ways (wiped out a machine gun position with an E-tool etc) or saving fellow service members (diving on a grenade).

    Nowadays they seem to be awarded more for saving the lives of fellow service members, not that that isn’t a valorous action.