The Marine Corps is capping off the Gulf War, with its staggering military buildup but only four days of actual ground combat, with a massive new undertaking--giving out more than 5,000 medals.
Unlike during the Vietnam War, when officers were more commonly decorated for heroism and merit, this time the corps is determined not to neglect the deeds and sacrifices of young enlisted troops.
While most agree the awards system is fairer now, criticism remains that favoritism sometimes influences who gets medals--especially for meritorious service--that help bring status and promotions.
"The awards process now is a vast improvement over what we've had in the past," said Col. Joseph R. Holzbauer, a Vietnam veteran who is in charge of personnel and manpower for the 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton.
After reviewing award recommendations for the Gulf War, "there were no awards that were fabricated. The heroic acts were definitely heroic acts. There were no exaggerations, no quotas given," said Holzbauer.
However, some senior enlisted men still complain privately that the awards system, although better, is still flawed.
They say officers receive the higher medals for merit, cronyism plays a role in who gets merit awards, and that some commanding officers write such poorly worded recommendations for subordinates that the applications for well-deserved awards are rejected.
"There are people who are getting awards who don't deserve them," said an enlisted man with nearly 20 years service who spoke on condition of not being identified. "If they're in tight with the boss, they're going to get an award."
Even so, he and other career Marines expressed satisfaction the Marine Corps command is honoring more enlisted troops, and also rewarding Marines who stayed statewide but distinguished themselves in duties to support the war effort.
That change is largely because of Lt. Gen. Walter Boomer, who commanded the Marine forces against Iraq and unhappily remembers how the awards system in Vietnam was weighted in favor of officers over enlisted men.
In a recent comment to reporters, Boomer recalled: "It seemed to me almost impossible to have them recognized. . . . We're not forgetting the young Marines this time."
So far, 3,250 awards have been approved for Marines and about 2,000 more recommendations are being processed. About 90,000 Marines served in the Gulf War, including 21,000 from Camp Pendleton.
The number of awards may seem astonishing for a ground war that lasted only four days, but Marine Corps officials quickly explain that a relative handful of medals are being bestowed for bravery under fire.
Most of the citations are being awarded for what Holzbauer called "sustained superior performance," both during the ground war and the months of preparation.
The Marine Corps, like the other services, has a dozen different medals for heroism or meritorious achievement. There are numerous other service and campaign medals that are automatically given for being overseas or serving in a theater of war.
Decorations for bravery include, in order of precedence, the Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, Silver Star and Bronze Star. Awards for merit include the Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Navy Commendation Medal and Navy Achievement Medal.
To complicate matters, the Bronze Star, Navy Commendation Medal and Navy Achievement Medal can be given for either courage or merit. When these awards are given for valor, a small metal "V" is attached to the ribbon.
In addition, aviators can receive the Distinguished Flying Cross or the Air Medal. The Purple Heart Medal is given for wounds received in action against the enemy, or bestowed posthumously when someone is killed in action.
It appears the Marine Corps is keeping the promise to recognize its enlisted troops. Of the 3,250 medals granted to date, 56% have gone to the enlisted ranks and 44% to officers. (No such breakdown is available for the Vietnam War.)
So far, seven Silver Stars have been approved for Marines, five going to enlisted men and only two for officers, according to Marine Corps Headquarters in Washington. The 193 approved Bronze Stars include 109 to enlisted personnel and 84 to officers.
Fred Anthony, a retired Marine colonel who now directs the corps' awards programs, said commanding officers are trying to make fair judgments, based on guidelines, in deciding who gets medals.
"My perception is the commanders are trying to comply with the criteria evenly, as best they can, objectively, and not just hand out buckets of awards," Anthony said.
While the Marine Corps regards itself as strict and parsimonious in bestowing medals, many old-timers remember some past cases where they believe undeserved awards were given.
However, it's the Army that has been largely blamed for being extravagant with medals. Criticism reached its zenith following the 1983 invasion of Grenada, when the Army showered more than 5,000 medals for valor and merit on fewer than 5,000 American soldiers who participated in the two-week campaign.
Then, after the invasion of Panama last year, when an Army private got the Purple Heart for suffering heat stroke in battle, the complaints got louder.
Retired Army Col. David Hackworth, a highly decorated combat veteran of Korea and Vietnam, wrote a blistering commentary in the Washington Post, declaring that with the award of the Purple Heart for heat stroke, "the Army's long battered, bruised and grossly inflated awards system has sunk to a new low."
"This took some doing," Hackworth went on. "In Vietnam, literally millions of awards were mechanically turned out," a devaluation of medals he claimed continued in Grenada and Panama.
With the Gulf War recently ended, an Army spokeswoman said "nobody knows" how many medals are being approved and processed for the soldiers who served in Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Similarly, the Air Force couldn't immediately come up with any figures.
However, a Navy spokeswoman reported that as of Aug. 12, 6,690 nominations for decorations have been submitted for the 70,000 Navy personnel who served in the Gulf War.
Marines tend to view the Army and the Air Force as the culprits responsible for tarnishing the awards system.
"The Army and the Air Force are much more liberal in the administration of the Silver Star and the Bronze Star," said retired Marine Maj. Gen. Marc Moore of Escondido.
Modern military doctrine calls for all the services to closely work together in joint operations, a fact Moore said underscores the need to have common criteria for awards. "There's going to have to be standardization," he said.
Matters of equality are important to the military, where decorations are badges of distinction that are taken seriously by promotion boards. Medals, said Moore, both inspire and make up for low pay and life-threatening duty.
"They're a compensation for the danger and privation," he said. "They do count in a person's career."
Given that importance, the purported failings in the awards system cause bitterness in some Marines.
"It's the medals for meritorious service where the inequities show up," Moore said.
When it comes to valor medals, fairness is easier to achieve because witnesses saw the action for which an individual is being honored. Anthony said, "You've got to nail it down. You can embellish with words (on medal recommendations) but there's got to be facts in there."
But merit awards are often based on a commanding officer's subjective view of a subordinate, and favoritism or office politics can determine who is nominated for an award, said the senior enlisted man with 20 years service.
"You got your little cliques in there, (and) they're going to get the awards," he said.
He also claimed officers get the higher merit awards, such as the Legion of Merit of the Bronze Star, although lower-ranking Marines may do a better job but receive a lower-standing Navy Commendation Medal or Navy Achievement Medal. "Somehow, the higher rank you go, the higher medal you get. It doesn't have anything to do with the quality or quantity of work you do."
Holzbauer argued that award boards carefully consider recommendations and have the power to upgrade or downgrade the requested decoration, or send the recommendation back for more work.
"I don't think there are any inflated awards," he said.
He also maintained that recipients of merit awards earned them, and the performance that led to the awards is observed by enough individuals to ensure the legitimacy of the decoration.
But on one point, Holzbauer can understand the criticism of the senior enlisted man. He said higher-ranking Marines do receive the higher merit medals, but he said that's because they shoulder the greater responsibility of command.
"There aren't any awards that say 'officers only' or 'enlisted men only,' " Holzbauer said.