By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan not only have changed the methods U.S. troops use to fight an urban insurgency, they also have caused the U.S. military services to change the way they look at honoring troops who are fighting on the difficult battlefields.
The Marine Corps this year changed the rules that determine which Marines are eligible for the Combat Action Ribbon, an honor that previously required troops to both receive and return fire against an enemy. Recognizing that the deadliest and most effective enemy weapon in Iraq has been the roadside bomb, officials changed the criteria to include anyone who has been exposed to the detonation of such bombs, known within the military as improvised explosive devices.
"Prior to this, a service member had to be involved in a combat firefight to qualify," said Lt. Col. Jim Taylor, acting head of the Marine Corps' military awards branch. "There was a lot of heartburn over that, especially with the nature of the conflict in Iraq," he said.
Taylor said the Marines reviewed all cases in which the Combat Action Ribbon was denied during the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq in order to apply the new criteria, and out of about 3,400 such cases, 85 were found to meet the award's qualifications. About 75,000 Combat Action Ribbons have been issued for the two conflicts so far, Taylor said.
The Combat Action Ribbon has a series of colored bands, beginning with one wide blue and one wide yellow band; a set of narrow red, white and blue bands; another wide yellow band; and a wide red band.
The Marines are now in a second phase of review, during which all active-duty Marines can submit recommendations for the same award based on the new rules. The change means that thousands of Marines could qualify if they were directly exposed to a roadside bomb detonation. The next phase, set to begin in January, will allow all Marines who are no longer on active duty to apply for similar recognition, Taylor said. The change is retroactive to Oct. 7, 2001, the beginning of the war in Afghanistan.
The Army last year introduced its Combat Action Badge, which recognizes soldiers who are exposed to enemy action but are not officially in combat roles. That badge was designed to honor soldiers such as military police, truck drivers and fuel specialists who daily face the dangers of war -- such as roadside bombs -- in Iraq's urban battlefield.
The Army's award was also the first nonmedical combat distinction to honor women who are caught in battle, whereas previous similar honors were reserved for infantrymen. The change in the badge was made in recognition that any soldier fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan can come in contact with combat situations at almost any time.
Defense Department officials are also conducting the first thorough review of military-wide honors since 1996, hoping to standardize and clarify the criteria for several awards in light of the ongoing overseas wars. That review, which could take six to eight months, is expected to provide common language in all services for awards such as the Purple Heart, given for injuries during combat, and valor devices.
Maj. Stewart Upton, a Pentagon spokesman, said the department review will look at whether there is a way to honor troops who serve multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, because currently they can receive only one recognition in either campaign. The review group also will examine whether some troops who are involved in the campaigns but are not actually in the field could be eligible for campaign awards.
One example Upton cited is the Air Force rule that an airman must serve in a theater of operations to earn a campaign medal, but that would exclude airmen who load weapons on bombers in the United States that then fly overseas on operations.
"The evolving nature of warfare demands that we review policies," David S.C. Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said in a statement. "For example, in the case of expeditionary medals, we must review how we define the operating 'box,' whether it is the theatre of direct action, or whether it might extend far beyond."