Lt. Gen. Michael W. Hagee, who is to become commandant of the Marine Corps next week, said Tuesday that he had stopped wearing three decorations that had been on his uniform for years because he was unable to document that he earned them.
Hagee told reporters that he began a thorough review of his military career in September, after he was confirmed by the Senate, but that neither he nor the Marine Corps had records of the decorations in question. The general, who gains a fourth star on Monday when he becomes commandant, said he believes he legitimately received the medals but noted that he should have discovered the lack of documentation earlier.
"It was an honest mistake," Hagee told reporters. "I believe I won these ribbons."
Several of the more than two dozen decorations on Hagee's uniform, such as the Bronze Star with an added "V" for valor earned in Vietnam in 1970 and 1971, are more coveted than the comparatively mundane awards in question: a Navy Unit Commendation Ribbon, a Humanitarian Service Medal and a Vietnam Gallantry Cross issued by the now-defunct South Vietnamese government.
Marine officials expected the controversy to become public because Stars & Stripes, the military newspaper, had obtained a recent, unreleased photograph of Hagee without the awards.
The picture, his official photo as commandant, will actually include more decorations than he previously wore because a Marine Corps review found five awards the general's official record said he won but had not been displayed.
Hagee informed Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld of his decision on Tuesday, and Rumsfeld issued a statement saying he had "complete confidence" in the general and looked forward to him assuming his new duties.
The incident, which Hagee described as a paperwork error, was the latest in which a senior military official removed ribbons and badges that came into question.
The most dramatic occurred in 1996, when Adm. Jeremy "Mike" Boorda, the chief of Naval Operations, fatally shot himself at his home after reporters questioned the legitimacy of his combat decorations.
A year later retired Army Col. David Hackworth, the soldier-turned-journalist who blew the whistle on Boorda, conceded he had two questionable awards among the medals that made him one of the nation's most highly decorated soldiers. He said the Army had mistakenly given him a second Distinguished Flying Cross and a Ranger patch.
Hagee said he stopped wearing the three decorations after the review found no records of them. He continued looking for the documentation through last month, in part because his belongings had been moved in boxes from Camp Pendleton to his new home near the Pentagon's northern Virginia headquarters.
He said he has not been able to locate any of his awards from Vietnam, although Marine Corps records found all but the one issued by the South Vietnamese government. The unit under his command in Somalia in 1992, the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, won the Humanitarian Service Medal, he said, but his name was absent from Marine records.
He said he hoped to don the award after a further review corrects what he called an oversight that affected him and possibly other Marines under his command.
Hagee succeeds Gen. James L. Jones as commandant of the Marine Corps.
Jones will head the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's European forces.