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Mideast edition, Sunday, June 01, 2008

HEIDELBERG, Germany — Word came down from on high last week reaffirming that soldiers at Camp Speicher, Iraq, and elsewhere may wear whatever combat patches they’ve earned.

"By regulation, Soldiers who have been on multiple deployments with different units have the option of wearing their unit combat patch of their choice based on war-time service," Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling, the commander of the 1st Armored Division and Task Force Iron in northern Iraq, wrote in an e-mailed memo Monday. "I encourage leaders at all levels to inform soldiers on the provisions of AR 670-1 ... and ensure they know they can adorn their uniform with the authorized combat patch of their preference," the memo said.

Hertling’s message was some small comfort to Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Minor. Minor, attached to the 1st Combat Aviation Brigade, and ordered to wear a 1st Infantry Division patch, had waged a lonely battle to be able to wear his patch from the 173rd Airborne Combat Team and an Afghanistan deployment.

Minor in April wrote a letter to Stars and Stripes noting the order defied Army regulations. After it was published, he received a counseling letter for "not using his chain of command," which warned of legal action against him if he did it again.

Minor, a "super soldier," according to his previous first sergeant, felt bad.

"Imagine if you will that you have to live by a set of rules you know to be wrong and you also know the people that enforce these rules know that they are wrong. Yet there is NOTHING you can do about it. You try and scream and shout as loud as you can, but for all your effort you are drowned out by the masses of soldiers next to you that are intimidated and that have been beaten into submission," he wrote in an e-mail.

After his letter was published, Minor’s battalion commander did send an e-mail to sergeants saying that they could wear the patch they wanted but that "leaders" — anyone getting an evaluation — were still "strongly encouraged" to wear the 1st ID patch.

Lower enlisted soldiers heard nothing at all on the matter, Minor said.

Enter Maj. Gen. Hertling. Hertling said he decided to send the e-mail, in part, he said, because of a conversation he’d had with Minor’s brigade commander, Col. Jessie Farrington.

"We were talking about several very important issues that were affecting his aviation troopers … and he mentioned the Stars and Stripes article, and how it was really unfortunate that a young soldier, and perhaps some of his leaders, had misunderstood his desire to generate unit spirit and morale by suggesting they might all wear the 1ID patch on their right shoulder," Hertling wrote in an e-mail to Stripes.

"Jessie Farrington is one of my best brigade commanders, and I know what he was doing… he was attempting to give them something to latch onto which was a piece of history," Hertling’s e-mail said. "Some soldiers (and perhaps some leaders) took that the wrong way, and thought it was a "policy" to wear that patch in their Brigade. Let me emphatically state: It isn’t."

Farrington’s attempt at forging unit cohesion was understandable, given how deployed units are formed these days, Hertling said. His own task force, he noted, contains elements of the 1st ID, 2nd ID, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, the 2rd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division, 101st Air Assault Division, the 75th Fires Brigade out of Fort Sill, Okla., the 111th Engineers of the West Virginia National Guard, and a variety of other units from the States and Germany.

Just 800 soldiers wear the 1st AD patch, Hertling said. "That’s a little strange, and very different from the last time 1AD deployed as a division with all its brigades in 2003-4 when I was the assistant division commander."

Despite the memo, Minor’s troubles persist. Minor said he did go through his chain of command, and, even if he didn’t, experts say he could not in actuality be prosecuted for "not using his chain of command." They say that soldiers may express themselves in a newspaper like other U.S. citizens without fear of reprisal, yet they also say a soldier can be counseled for almost anything.

Minor remains unpopular with his battalion leadership, he said. He was informed that his upcoming review would likely be negative, and he’s heard that some in the battalion are looking to pin him with some other offense, he said. His counseling statement has not been retracted.

The Army reservist with a Purple Heart who volunteered for a third combat tour feels sadly disillusioned. "So much for freedom of speech if you are in the military," he said.

author picture
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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