WASHINGTON —The Pentagon is reviewing the award of hundreds of Bronze Stars for military personnel involved in last year’s airstrikes on Yugoslavia, many of them senior officers who never came close to combat, an official said Tuesday.
"I don’t have any sense that the services have somehow inappropriately applied the criteria" for determining who was eligible to receive the nation’s fourth-highest combat award for Operation Allied Force, said Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman, at a news briefing. "But we are taking a look."
"There is no precedent for awarding Bronze Stars to servicemembers outside the combat zone," Army Lt. Col. Cathy Abbott, another Pentagon spokeswoman, said Wednesday. "So, they’re reviewing that whole concept."
The review raises the possibility that some of those who were awarded the Bronze Star might have them revoked, although officials declined to discuss that.
"What, if anything, is done as a result of the review remains to be seen," Abbott said.
Air Force and Navy leaders in Europe say they’re standing by the Bronze Stars they’ve handed out. "Nothing has changed," said a spokesman for the Air Force in Europe.
The Navy’s position was the same.
The awards "were carefully reviewed by award boards to ensure they were within the guidance found in the Navy-Marine Corps Awards Manual," said Navy spokesman Capt. Steve Honda.
A recent review by the Stars and Stripes of the way the Bronze Star was awarded to U.S. personnel involved in the airstrikes on Yugoslavia found that the Air Force awarded 185 of the medals, the vast majority going to officers and top commanders. Only 25 enlisted Air Force troops got the nod. Of all the medals awarded, only one in 10 actually was in the combat zone.
In the Navy, most of the 69 Bronze Stars awarded went to officers out in the fleet where Yugoslavia’s navy made the Adriatic and Ionian seas part of the combat zone; although at least four were awarded to staff officers in Naples, Italy, for work far from harm’s way. The Army, which had 5,000 troops positioned in Albania, also part of the combat zone, awarded no Bronze Stars.
Many recipients of the coveted award were based in Italy, Germany and even the United States. They included at least five Air Force officers for their work at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., from which B-2 bombers flew long-range missions into Kosovo.
One lieutenant colonel received the medal, for example, "for responding to supply requests at a moment’s notice" at Aviano Air Base in Italy. Another senior officer got a Bronze Star for presenting his "bed-down briefing" to top brass, such as then-NATO commander Gen. Wesley K. Clark, on where troops and aircraft were being positioned at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Others got it for helping to plan strike missions.
The Air Force and Navy actions have evoked criticism from veterans’ groups, officers and enlisted troops and military historians.
"We have discussed this often at work," wrote one senior fighter pilot in an e-mail message, who complained that support commanders were getting Bronze Stars for building "miraculous" tent cities, but many who actually went into harm’s way have gotten lesser medals.
"Thanks to Kosovo, the Bronze Star has become a joke and a slap in the face to all the recipients who received the medal before," said one Air Force spouse, whose father earned the Bronze Star in combat during World War II. "How does an officer receive a Bronze Star from behind a desk in Germany or by building a tent city in Italy? I thought the war was in Kosovo?"
"How can a civil engineer squadron commander who never set foot in the combat zone go to a dining out and sit next to the pilot who was shot at every mission wearing only an Air Medal while the CE Commander wears the Bronze Star?" said one Air Force fighter pilot.
"He sat on his duff ‘leading’ from a cozy office in Aviano during the conflict," quipped one airman about a Bronze Star recipient in Italy. "Sadly, the system has become overinflated, where people expect them when they are basically just doing their job."
The Defense Department’s criteria for the Bronze Star, created during World War II at the urging of Gen. George C. Marshall as a ground-unit counterpart to the Air Medal, states that it should be awarded to troops "engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States" or an "opposing foreign force."
Quigley acknowledged that "there is latitude in these words," particularly in the notion of what it means to "engage" an enemy. Air Force and Navy officials have defended their actions by citing the evolving nature of post-Cold War expeditionary warfare, which often may involve units based far from the actual fighting.
"We provide broad guidance on the eligibility criteria for various medals, but there is no further definition of that word," Quigley said.
"We try to be uniform, but latitude is given to the awarding authorities, in this case the services," he said. "The fitting of the criteria to the awarding of those medals, we leave that judgment to the services. There are going to be differences in the judgments of the leaders of each service."
The Bronze Star investigation
Read more about Stripes’ special investigation into the awarding of Bronze Stars in Kosovo in 1999, which resulted in a Pentagon review and a decision by Congress to stop the awarding of Bronze Stars to personnel outside the combat zone.