Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Confessions of an Adjutant: the sausage-making of awards policies

I'm a few days late to this discussion, but I wanted the passion surrounding this Air Force Times article on awards to subside a bit before I wrote about it. A soldier may fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon - but that fighting isn't exclusively with the enemy. There are few things soldiers love to argue more about among themselves than awards and fight about it they will. It's such a personal topic, often shrouded in jealousies ("They gave that guy a BSM?!?"), nebulous guidance that leaves awards to commanders with different criteria, rank-based determination of awards, awards for merely doing your job, and the "everybody wins, everybody gets a medal" mentality.

With 6 years of active duty I held a few positions: tank and scout platoon leader, troop XO, assistant S3, brigade planner. I was even an Assistant Support Platoon Leader for two days (seriously - two very long days). But for an entire year I was a squadron adjutant (for you non-military types, think HR representative and administrative assistant to the CEO for a 500+ person organization) at the end of a deployment, through a redeployment cycle, and into a deployment ramp-up and that was the hardest year of my short military career. As the center cog of the awards sausage-making machine I think I can shed some light on why awards are so hard and why there isn't an easy solution to fix the problem.

We should begin by visiting Army Regulation 600-8-22, "Military Awards" which is the Army's user manual for awards. Section 1-12 tells us that "the objective of the Department of the Army Military Awards Program is to provide tangible recognition for acts of valor, exceptional service or achievement, special skills or qualifications, and acts of heroism not involving actual combat" and that "implementation of the provisions of this regulation is a command responsibility." Bottom line is that commanders award awards to recognize what soldiers do. The remainder of the regulation goes through approval authorities, time limits, revocations, and standards for each awards. Gripping stuff.

How does this work in the real Army, beyond the regulatory constraints of Human Resources Command? Well, awards policies effectively fall into three categories: peace-time achievement, peace-time service, and war-time achievement and service.

Peace-time achievement is the simplest to deal with. Commanders have the discretion to give awards for singular acts of excellence, the level of which award depends upon the commander's rank and excellence of the act. Giving awards out make commanders feel like they're really doing something for their soldiers and not merely for those soldiers trying to accumulate promotion points. Top tank at Table VIII gunnery? Here's an ARCOM for the crew. Chaplain's assistant organized a bad-ass Easter Egg hunt? AAM! For lesser achievements commanders can give challenge coins, which they tend to apply liberally. Basically, these awards are the commander's whim, they don't happen too often, and in spite of Ex's anecdote I've rarely seen officers receive them.

The next category - peace-time service awards - is where things start to get complicated. We can start with the fact that there are only so many types of awards - Army Achievement Medal (AAM), Army Commendation Medal (ARCOM), Meritorious Service Medal (MSM) - before we get into medals reserved for General and Flag Officers and their enlisted counterparts. The three awards mentioned are given in peace-time for one of two reasons: permanent change of station or retirement/resignation/end-term-of-service. Generally, retirees E-8 and under get MSMs for their 20+ years of service. Got it. Most units have a rank cut-off for non-retirement awards. For instance, E-4 Specialists and below get AAMs unless they were absolute studs - whether they were moving to a new duty station or getting out of the Army. E-5s to E-7s (maybe -8s) and O-1 thru O-3 get ARCOMs, unless you're coming out of a success command in which case it's an MSM. Etc. Basically there's a matrix for what you get and you know what your service award is going to be before you even start providing that service (unless you're a total stud or dud).

I imagine you're telling yourself a couple of things. First, that this systems isn't complicated at all. Second that for the most part these awards are virtually meaningless and that they might as well just give it to you when you sign in to the unit. The reason this is where awards get complicated is that the first two awards I mentioned, AAM and ARCOM, are the only two awards commanders give for achievement and also the bulk of service awards. The problem is that one soldier gets an AAM for something mundane and stupid and another soldier will get the exact same medal for 5 years of service to his nation. Between that and "everybody wins" a lot of people start questioning the sanity of the system. As an adjutant I had to explain to the commander why someone didn't deserve an award in accordance with our matrix in stead of substantiating why any soldier should get an award. It's ass backwards, it cheapens the system, and it makes soldiers disgruntled.

And that's all before we wade into the minefield that is war-time awards. Achievement awards in combat usually fall under the "heroism" heading (not always - sometimes an intel analyst will really make a breakthrough and the commander will award him or her). Each commander has different criteria for heroism, to include gradations of heroism, with approval for those determinations at the 2-star or higher level. This leaves a lot of room for the commander's whim. It also means that there is a lot of space - physically as well as time and perceptions of reality - between the point where the act took place and the guy who signs off on the award. This can obviously lead to problems. Silver Stars and above usually get thorough treatment and vetting, but criteria for Valor devices (a bronze "V" you pin to an award to denote it was for heroism) vary widely because they require (on the whole) lesser documentation and vetting. You also have problems with the fact that heroism isn't effectively defined in the regulation (how about that definition on page 183...). Beyond that, what delineates heroism deserving a Bronze Star Medal (BSM) with V device versus an ARCOM with V device? Entirely up to the commander. As an adjutant, I didn't take it upon myself to screen the award recommendations for content (that was a commander-to-commander issue) and merely just checked the admin blocks so that the recommendation wouldn't hit a bureaucratic hurdle. But I did lose count of the number of times the commander asked me "Why is this on my desk? This isn't heroic." Frankly, I didn't know what heroic meant when we're comparing completely different situations that occurred when I wasn't around.

War-time service awards are similar to peace-time awards (matrix solution by rank and position) except that MSMs are rarely given and everybody wants a BSM - wars end after all and it's a super thing to put on your resume. Our brigade's policy was Sergeants First Class and above were to be awarded BSMs unless an exception was made. Oh the fight over making sure those couple of young lieutenants who shouldn't have gotten one didn't - it would have been easier to get them Silver Stars than downgrade a recommendation from BSM to ARCOM. Command policy was unless ineligible everyone got an award and according to the matrix. Many of us wondered what the point of that was, especially as we already received combat patches and Iraq Campaign Medals for emitting enough brain waves to board a plane and do our jobs for a year. Why did we need another medal for the exact same thing? The best answer I had was: the commander ordered it.

Frankly, our Army gives out too many awards and too many of these are for simply doing your job. Some awards mean a lot to the people who received them - and you should be proud if you think you deserved it. On the whole - and here's really the crux of the matter - commanders give out the awards they do in the way they do because they want to do right by their soldiers. You don't want to be that major without a BSM going into a lieutenant colonel promotion board and your commander doesn't want to be the guy that ruins your career over a bit of colored ribbon. It's a broken system that awards mediocrity, but those awards mean a lot to the people who get them. And for those that don't deserve them, they know it and it doesn't mean anything to them. For that reason I'm not sure getting rid of all non-combat/heroism awards is the way to go (in spite of what I said on Twitter the other night). I'm proud of some of my medals, including non-combat, and not of others. Medals may cause many an argument, but why deprive commanders of their ability to recognize their soldiers because some admin or supply clerk got a Bronze Star? Life's unfair and that's okay - awards sausage-making has always been ugly. It's not like Brits a hundred years ago weren't bitching around the campfire about that dick from the next company over who got the VC because his uncle was in the cabinet. Or Romans on Hadrian's Wall having the exact same conversation (only about whatever awards they got back then). Soldiers bitch about medals. They always have and they always will and that's because it's important to them.


  1. Well, if your unit was making sausage with the awards policy, mine was cooking haggis. True story: We'd only been in-country for 30 days, and we were ordered to have end of tour award recommendations to the S-1 no later than 2 weeks hence. As a former Bn Adjutant myself, I thought the notice was a marvelous Joseph Heller-like practical joke. But it wasn't. Soon after, we received further guidance, to wit: Each detachment would be allocated "X" amount of BSMs and MSMs, and that quota would not be exceeded under any circumstances. Det Cdrs went along with the deadline, but since the award recommendations were all based on make-believe and wild speculation, (since none of us had actually DONE anything yet), the dets all inflated the hell out of the recommendations, figuring that they'd be sent back for downgrading at some point. Nope, the S-1 just changed 90% of the paperwork to ARCOMs, and sprinkled the quota of BSMs and MSMs among a few bosses...and of course, the Bn HQs staff. So our awards had zero meaning for us.
    This led to one of the most incredible acts of mass G.I. disgust I have witnessed in my 25 years as a soldier...During the Bn awards ceremony in Kuwait on our way home, as many filed out of the gym, they chucked their ARCOMs into a metal trash can by the door, and sailed the green vinyl certificate holders like frisbees into the night. Others were a bit more circumspect, leaving their medals in the cigarette butt cans outside the tents. We didn't all demonstrate our feelings, but we were all pissed off at seeing POS slacker dirtbags receive the exact same medal as highly motivated, competent performers who routinely went the extra mile.
    Personally, I didn't much care about my end-of-tour ARCOM, given the circumstances behind its award. What DID mean a whole heck of a lot to me were the two AAMs I received. One was for the work I did preparing my unit for mobilization and deployment, and the other was from my team chief for nailing a couple of really complex investigations.

    So Jason, I guess your very well-articulated commentary requires one more caveat: If you have the benefit of serving under a commander who actually does care about recognizing his or her troops, they may bitch a bit, but accept the situation for what it is. If on the other hand, awards are allocated based on a system which has about as much meaning as getting your favorite flavor out of a gumball machine, well, that's a bit like jamming dog poop in a casing and calling it sausage.

  2. Good lord. Your 638s had to be turned in less than a month after getting there?!? In a topic full that never runs out of stories of stupidity, this may be the most stupid. At least I dealt with commanders who, while using a matrix for service awards because he thought it was fair, based the awards on actual service and what the individual did. Unbelievable.

    1. That was pretty much the same reaction I got to my blog post at the time. (I of course had to attribute this idiocy to another, unnamed unit on my FOB...but my friends all knew I was talking about our own "5% Awesome" commander.)

  3. Soldiers bitch about medals. They always have and they always will and that's because it's important to them.

    Good insight. (Not that I'd know, but you know what I mean.)

    - Madhu

  4. "Frankly, I didn't know what heroic meant..."

    Really dude? I think the definitions in AR 600–8–22 pretty well bracket it:

    Bravery: "Quality or state showing courage; level of conduct which is expected of professional Army Soldiers." <----Not Awarded for Valor.

    Valor: Heroism performed under combat conditions.

    Heroism: "Extreme courage demonstrated in attaining a noble end. ... This phrase covers all military operations including combat, support, and supply which have a direct bearing on the outcome of an engagement or engagements against armed opposition. To perform duty, or to accomplish an act or achievement in connection with military operations against an armed enemy, the individual must have been subjected to either personal hazard as a result of direct enemy action, or the imminence of such action, or must have had the conditions under which his or her duty or accomplishment took place complicated by enemy action or the imminence of enemy action."

    Gallantry in action: "Spirited and conspicuous acts of heroism and courage. Minimum level of valorous performance in combat consistent with a recommendation for the Silver Star."

    Extraordinary heroism: "Act or acts of heroism or gallantry involving the risk of life. Minimum level of valorous performance in combat consistent with a recommendation for the Distinguished Service Cross."

    Gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life: "Fearless spontaneous conduct at the certain risk of life, above and beyond the call of duty, which clearly sets the Soldier apart from all other comrades. Minimum level of valorous performance in combat consistent with a recommendation for the Medal of Honor."

    Pretty clear to me on combat criteria for awards:
    Risk your life in a noble act beyond what is normally expected of a professional soldier while under threat from an armed enemy --> At least a DSC.

    Spirited and conspicuous courageous act towards accomplishing a noble end above what is normally expected of a professional Soldier while under threat from an armed enemy --> At least a SS.

    A distinguished, courageous act towards accomplishing a noble-end well above what is normally expected of a professional Soldier while under threat from an enemy --> At least a BSM-V

    A distinguished, courageous act towards accomplishing a noble-end above what is normally expected of a professional Soldier while under threat from an armed enemy --> At least a ARCOM-V

    A distinguished, courageous act towards accomplishing a noble-end while under threat from an armed enemy --> at least an AAM

    What frustrates me with the Army award system, is not the people being over-recognized. It is the many DSC-level acts I witnessed, but I could not get recognized with an award above a BSM-V. Squad dismounts and charges an armed enemy immediately after being hit by an IED, capturing them and freeing two prisoners who had had been tortured: all I get get for them is ARCOM-V, and a BSM-V for the Squad leader?! Or Soldier, while we are under direct fire, runs into a burning building that had just been hit by two car bombs and carries out two injured Iraqis --> AAM.