Capt. Steve Gventer is still picking shrapnel out of his right shoulder. It became lodged there last month when a rocket-propelled grenade sailed over his head and exploded against a wall, splattering him with hot metal.

That attack came two weeks after an insurgent in Sadr City, the Baghdad slum, shot Gventer through his left calf with a machine gun.

Gventer's street fighting would appear to qualify him for one of the U.S. Army's most prestigious awards, the Combat Infantryman Badge. The award recognizes soldiers whose daily mission is to pursue the enemy, primarily on foot, and engage in close combat.

But Gventer won't get the award -- at least not under current rules. Normally a tank company commander, Gventer was retrained as an infantry officer before he was deployed. He and his men have fought furious street battles in one of Iraq's most perilous corners. But because they are technically tankers, they are ineligible for an award that for six decades has distinguished those who fight at ground level, where war is most lethal.

The Army retrained thousands of soldiers -- tankers, engineers, artillerymen -- to perform as infantry in Iraq's urban hot spots. But part of the fallout is an intense internal debate over who qualifies for the Combat Infantryman Badge, or CIB, and, more broadly, what constitutes an infantryman in a rapidly changing Army.

The award is "a divisive tool now," said Capt. Chuck Slagle, an infantry company commander who favors expanding the award's recipients to include non-infantry units. He and Gventer "do exactly the same thing," he said. "But because of this, we're separated."

The commander of the 1st Cavalry Division, Maj. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, recently petitioned the Army for an "exception of policy" to allow non-infantry units to receive badges, according to division officers. The decision will be made by the Army's chief of staff, Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, who "because of the changing nature of combat" has directed the Army staff to form a task force on the issue, according to Lt. Col. Michael J. Negard, his spokesman.

A spokesman for the 1st Cavalry, Maj. Philip J. Smith, neither confirmed nor denied that Chiarelli had made such a request. "It is our policy not to discuss pending policy decisions that will be made at levels above the division," he wrote in an e-mail.

But Schoomaker will be facing entrenched resistance to anything that appears to diminish the coveted award.

"I think they should get something, but not a CIB," said Sgt. Aaron Josey of the 1st Battalion, 41st Infantry Regiment. "I'm an infantryman. They're not."

The debate revolves around a swatch of fabric that features a rifle and a wreath and is normally sewn above the soldier's breast pocket. The award was created on Oct. 27, 1943, in recognition that the infantry "continuously operated under the worst conditions" and sustained "the most casualties while receiving the least public recognition."

From World War II through Vietnam, four out of five combat deaths were sustained by infantrymen, according to retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales Jr., a historian. "Not soldiers and Marines, but infantrymen," Scales wrote in an e-mail. "That's 5 percent of the [U.S. military] manpower suffering 81 percent of those" killed in action.

The badge is recognition for engaging in and surviving intimate violence. The award's requirements state that the recipient "must be personally present and under hostile fire . . . in a unit actively engaged in ground combat with the enemy."

"There isn't anything that equals the Combat Infantryman's Badge," said retired Army Col. John M. Collins, a military historian. "That is the prize on top of the prize. It says, 'I did it. I was there and I came back.' " Only soldiers whose formal "occupational specialty" is infantry are eligible for the award "regardless of the circumstances," the requirements state.

But perhaps never has that distinction been less clear than in Iraq.

As the military prepared for Operation Iraqi Freedom II -- the phase of the war that followed the defeat of former president Saddam Hussein -- army planners recognized that heavy armor would be less effective in areas such as Baghdad, where it was hoped that soldiers would spend most of their time rebuilding infrastructure and, if necessary, quelling resistance in the capital's narrow streets.

Both tasks required vast numbers of infantry, soldiers who primarily travel in five-man Humvees, then dismount, whether to rebuild sewers or fight insurgents.

Entire companies were ordered to trade in their tanks for Humvees and undergo months of retraining in urban warfare.

The transition was especially dramatic for the 1st Cavalry Division, which has operational responsibility over Baghdad. The real and fictional exploits of the 20,000-man division, which is based in Fort Hood, Tex., have been chronicled in movies from "Apocalypse Now" to "We Were Soldiers." Its very insignia features the black silhouette of a horse, representing the 1st Cavalry's historical evolution from horseback to heavy armor.

The commander of the division's 1st Brigade, Col. Robert. B. Abrams, is a former tank company commander. The M1 Abrams main battle tank is named after his late father, Gen. Creighton W. Abrams Jr., a renowned World War II tank commander who later served as overall military commander in Vietnam.

In an interview, Abrams said that for many soldiers, the badge has become "an emotional subject, but for me it's not very important right now. Perhaps after I've redeployed back to the United States it will become an emotional subject, but from my perspective and my expectation of my leaders, what we should really focus all of our intellectual and emotional energy on is accomplishing our mission and taking care of our soldiers and protecting the force.

"We can worry about badges and everything else later," said Abrams. "That doesn't mean it's not important, but in the Abrams version of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, it ain't there yet."

Current and retired soldiers on both sides of the issue emphasized the badge's symbolic importance. They offered widely different opinions on what they agreed was a highly charged issue.

Command Sgt. Maj. Stanley Small, of Huntsville, Ala., of the 1st Cavalry's 1st Brigade, said that expanding the award's recipients to include non-infantry units would be nearly impossible, given the range of soldiers who have been reassigned to combat roles in Iraq. He said it would inevitably dilute the award.

"I've got cooks out there -- not many, but some," he said. "I've got mechanics out there -- not many but some. . . . No matter how hard they try, they'll never be able to get the parameters right."

But Collins, the historian, said the Army runs a risk if soldiers essentially doing equal work are not rewarded equally.

"If they are going to be part of an infantry organization, then everybody in that organization is exposed to precisely the same risk," he said. "And to say that some of them are second-class citizens, I just think it would be a big mistake. It would encourage morale problems."

Gventer, a Baylor University graduate, said he did not want to be seen as emphasizing awards over mission, but he described the award as "huge." Both his father, a platoon leader in Vietnam, and his older brother, who fought in the Persian Gulf War, received badges.

Last year, two of three tank companies from the 1st Cavalry Division's 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment were reassigned to infantry roles; Gventer's Company C -- Cobra Company -- was one. The transition was dramatic. Gventer's men traded in 70-ton M1 Abrams tanks, which fire 120mm cannon shells with accuracy up to four miles, for the Humvees, much smaller vehicles that essentially transport troops into ground combat.

The Army now calls the soldiers "dragoons" to differentiate them from infantry, but they perform exactly the same tasks. In Sadr City for the past several months, that task has entailed patrolling the insurgent-held slum in platoon-size convoys, then dismounting to fight insurgents loyal to Moqtada Sadr, the rebellious Shiite Muslim cleric, or conduct raids to find them.

"It's much easier to have bad things happen when you dismount," said Gventer.

The first time he was wounded, Gventer was standing near a chain-link fence when he was shot. In the second incident, he and eight other men had descended from a roof during a blackout. The lights suddenly went back on, at which point an insurgent spotted the group and fired the grenade.

Seven of the nine men were wounded when the grenade exploded against the wall, including battalion commander Lt. Col. Florentino "Lopez" Carter, who was struck in the heel by shrapnel. None is currently eligible for the badge.

Neither is Sgt. Ben Brown, 27, from Tomball, Tex., another converted tanker from the 8th Cavalry Regiment.

On Aug. 6, Brown found himself and his Humvee isolated in Sadr City. For an hour, he managed to hold his ground until the crew found a way out. At one point, Brown traded blind fire with an insurgent who stood on the other side of a wall. Brown chased him away or shot him -- he isn't sure -- by grabbing a shotgun, pointing it over the wall and firing.

During the same battle, Brown pursued a mortar team into a dark field and silenced it with machine gun fire. When he finally ran out of ammunition, he grabbed spare machine-gun rounds from the Humvee's gunner.

His company commander, Capt. John Morning, later nominated Brown for the Silver Star for gallantry in combat "for continually exposing himself to enemy fire."

Morning said he regrets that not only Brown but the entire company is ineligible for the badge. "In my opinion, my soldiers have earned it as much as anyone else in the theater," he said. "A lot of guys aren't going to admit it, but it would mean a lot to them. It shows that they fought as infantrymen, on the ground."

Brown himself is philosophical, but he said the criteria make little sense. "The excuses they're using aren't really legitimate excuses," he said. "This is my second deployment and I haven't been in a tank yet."

Army Capt. Steve Gventer, normally a tank company commander, was hit by a grenade in Iraq after being retrained as an infantry officer. Under current rules, he is ineligible for the prestigious Combat Infantryman Badge.