Air Force to award 61 more Bronze Stars

By JON R. ANDERSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 18, 2000

The Air Force is in the midst of vetting another batch of Bronze Star medals to be handed out later this summer, some expected to go to personnel working in the Pentagon, Missouri and Ohio.

Controversy continues to swirl around the awarding of the coveted combat medals to servicemembers who served far from last year’s fighting in Yugoslavia.

Stars and Stripes reviewed 185 Air Force Bronze Star citations and learned the vast majority of those awards went to troops who served in places such as Italy, England, Spain and even as far away from the Balkan war zone as Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri.

But the service has plans to honor more of its members who played roles in the conflict.

The Air Force is conducting a final administrative review on another 61 Bronze Stars to be presented as early as August, according to Capt. Shane Balken, a spokesman for the Air Force in Europe.

The review, he said, was part of the normal awards process designed primarily to insure individuals don’t receive two awards for the same thing and check for other forms of duplication or clerical error.

The latest batch are the result of an awards board that met in March, Balken said.

Of the new awards, four Bronze Stars are slated to go to personnel who worked in the Pentagon. They were involved in the Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle flights over Yugoslavia, according to information provided by Air Force spokesman Maj. Jon K. Anderson.

Another Bronze Star would go to an airman who was based at Wright-Paterson Air Force Base in Ohio during the airstrikes. Others also would go to personnel in Missouri, bringing the total there to 12.

If all of the new awards clear the final administrative hurdle — and they are expected to — the total number of Bronze Stars awarded by the Air Force for the airstrikes would be 246.

Of those, only 16 —or 6 percent —actually served in what was officially designated the combat zone during the war, according to Air Force figures.

With the latest additions, enlisted troops continued to receive few of the awards, with 196 out of the 256 Bronze Stars going to officers.

Of the 69 Bronze Stars awarded by the Navy, most went to sailors aboard warships in the Adriatic and Ionian seas where Yugoslavia’s fleet posed a threat. At least four, however, also went to personnel who worked behind desks in Naples, Italy.

For both services, the newspaper’s review also found that the majority of the awards went to officers, mostly senior leaders and unit commanders.

Of the handful of enlisted troops who received the medal, most were senior noncommissioned officers.

The Army awarded no Bronze Stars to any of its troops involved in the 78-day airstrikes, including the 5,000 soldiers deployed to Albania, Yugoslavia’s southern neighbor.

The Defense Department has launched a review of how it awards combat medals as a result of the findings, naming a three-star admiral within the Pentagon’s personnel policy offices to investigate.

While the awarding of combat medals to troops so far from the combat zone has angered veterans and military experts — not to mention many of the rank and file within the services — Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Short thinks none of this should be an issue.

"Our decisions," wrote Short in a letter published in Sunday’s. Stars and Stripes, "were completely consistent with how this medal has been awarded throughout history." In addition to leading the bombardment of Yugoslavia as the senior air commander during Operation Allied Force, Short chaired the Air Force boards who awarded all of the top medals from campaign.

"Awarding the Bronze Star Medal without a combat ‘V’ device to deserving warriors outside the immediate combat zone is not unprecedented," Short wrote.

Short, who declined to be interviewed for this story, contends that personnel in Okinawa, Japan, received the Bronze Star during the Korean conflict as did support personnel stationed in Guam during the Vietnam War.

Anderson said the Air Force is in the middle of a massive check of Bronze Stars records from as far back as World War II to help build its case as the Pentagon’s Vice Adm. Patricia Tracey, a top personnel policy officer there, prepares to begin her own review.

"We’re giving the records a good scrub," he said. Backing up Short’s assertions, he said, Air Force history experts have found two officers who received the Bronze Star during the Korean War while assigned to Okinawa.

During Vietnam, another nine officers got the medal while assigned to Okinawa and Guam.

Officials cannot be completely certain those officers in either war did not actually go into the respective combat zones, because they no longer have the actual citations. Instead, they have been matching up command rosters with award orders and other records.

For example, records show that one colonel received a Bronze Star during Vietnam while serving as commander of a strategic reconnaissance squadron based on Okinawa.

Another colonel on Guam received his while serving as the executive officer for the headquarters of 8th Air Force. There’s no way of knowing if either one —or all the others mentioned by Short —didn’t go into a combat zone during the periods covered by their award.

"It’s possible that they went into the combat zone," said Anderson. "It’s not airtight, but it seems reasonable to assume they were not."

Specific numbers and circumstances aside, he said, "what we’re seeing is that it’s not a new line of reasoning."

Researchers now are looking into more recent conflicts, including the invasions of Grenada and Panama as well as Operation Desert Storm.

What seems to be clear already, though, is that awarding the majority of Bronze Stars to personnel so far from the combat zone during Allied Force "does represent a paradigm shift," Anderson said. But that falls in line with how the Air Force views its own changing role in warfighting and support to the war effort. "The way we fight wars —particularly in the Air Force — has changed," Anderson said. "It’s not geographically based any more."

For example, Anderson said, the leaders involved in processing and interpreting imagery at the Pentagon piped in from Predator drones flying into Yugoslavia played a direct daily role in the air campaign.

Enough, in fact, to warrant giving them combat medals, he said.

"Their meritorious achievements directly contributed to the success of Operation Allied Force," he said.

"Dedicated ‘reachback’ — to locations far outside the combat zone —for intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance also were commonplace. These changes in the way we conduct air operations also require changes in the way we recognize the contributions of Air Force men and women."

Critics claim there already are plenty of awards that would be appropriate for people supporting military operations from the safety of bases in the United States and Europe without handing them combat medals.

The Meritorious Service Medal, or MSM as most call it, is generally considered the peacetime —and noncombat —equivalent of the Bronze Star.

"The MSM is nothing to sneeze at," said one senior Army officer at the Pentagon. "The thing I don’t get is why that’s not good enough."

Others suggest that maybe it’s time to create new medals that reflect the evolving role of not only the Air Force, but also the other services.

With all four services spending the better part of the last decade embroiled in peacekeeping missions and humanitarian aid efforts such as those in Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti and Somalia, some believe that it may be time for a new caste of medals for operations that fall short of full-scale war.

"The evolution of modern warfare necessitates our review of this and other awards to reflect changing facets of combat," said Major Dick Shore, an Army officer in Naples, Italy, and author of the 1997 Above Center of Mass Command.

With the latest spat over the Bronze Stars, and a militarywide debate over medals that has been simmering for decades, Shore recommends two options:

  1. Change the criteria of combat medals so that specific proximity to danger is included, or
  2. "simply consider retiring the award and replace it with a new equivalent based on the emerging or established changes to the conduct of modern warfare."

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.