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An aircraft handler directs the pilot of an F/A-18 Hornet to the catapult of the USS George H.W. Bush, underway in the Persian Gulf, Aug. 11, 2014. The carrier has been the key launching pad for strikes against Islamic State fighters in Iraq.

An aircraft handler directs the pilot of an F/A-18 Hornet to the catapult of the USS George H.W. Bush, underway in the Persian Gulf, Aug. 11, 2014. The carrier has been the key launching pad for strikes against Islamic State fighters in Iraq. (Hendrick Simoes/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — Troops deploying in support of the fight against the Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria don’t have a campaign medal to call their own, in part because the growing set of operations has yet to be graced with a name.

U.S. advisers began flowing into the country more than three months ago, with airstrikes beginning in early August and recently expanding to militant targets in Syria.

For now, U.S. troops who are involved are eligible for a relatively generic award, the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, authorized by former President George W. Bush a few days before the 2003 invasion of Iraq. That award was originally established for troops supporting Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The geography of the current conflict aside, the Pentagon considers the Iraq War a closed book, having ended in 2011 with the withdrawal of U.S. troops. So instead of receiving the medal through an association with Operation Iraqi Freedom, it will be awarded under a banner generally associated with the Afghanistan War.

“Troops deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Enduring Freedom are eligible for the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal,” Maj. James Brindle, a Pentagon spokesman, wrote in an email. “Service members are not eligible for the Iraq Campaign Medal, as it is reserved for those deployed to Iraq during the period of March 19, 2003 through December 31, 2011.”

Officials point out that, technically, Operation Enduring Freedom extends beyond Afghanistan to cover a range of other antiterrorism activities in locations including the Philippines, the Caribbean and Central America and Africa.

The dithering over technicalities will likely be moot if the Pentagon names the operation underway in Iraq, an action that’s been widely noted as unusually tardy. The smaller, newer operation to fight Ebola in West Africa already has been dubbed Operation United Assistance.

Critics say the Obama administration, which early this year was still trumpeting a successful withdrawal from Iraq, is hesitant to embrace a new war in Iraq, including the attendant — probably inspiring — operational name.

A process to consider names is playing out, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters Friday, but no proposals have risen to the top levels of the Pentagon for review.

A general who headed the training of Iraq troops from 2009 to 2011 said the main reason to name the campaign is not to give troops a new kind of medal. It’s to underline the point that the United States is in a serious fight.

“The question is whether this is a military operation, and is it going to go on for a while?” said retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero. “It fits all the requirements, and I think not naming it is a political decision. We’re in combat, and not doing it just shows the reluctance and the incremental approach to this thing.”

carroll.chris@stripes.com Twitter: @ChrisCarroll_

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