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Many in Army Special Forces denied medals for Balkan actions

By JON R. ANDERSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 15, 2000

The Air Force F-117 pilot who was shot down over Yugoslavia during last year’s NATO air campaign received a Bronze Star for evading enemy capture on the ground. The lead pilot sent in to rescue him got a Silver Star out of the mission. Air Force crewmembers on the same flight pinned on the coveted Air Medal for their bravery.

But the 14 Army Special Forces soldiers who fanned out on the ground providing a protective perimeter while the downed aviator was retrieved apparently will get nothing for their efforts.

In fact, dozens of elite Special Forces soldiers, who performed dangerous and classified missions along Albania’s rugged border with Kosovo and inside Yugoslavia itself during the 78-day air blitz, have been turned down for Bronze Star and Army Air Medals.

Some 26 Bronze Star and 20 Army Air Medals nominations have been denied, according to Lt. Col. Mike Grant, a personnel manager at the Special Operations Command in Europe.

The Bronze Star is the nation’s fourth highest combat award and was established for ground troops facing hostile forces. Its counterpart, the Air Medal, was designed for aircrews and troops braving similar dangers in flight.

While the Navy and Air Force combined to hand out hundreds of the awards for last year’s air campaign — including dozens of Bronze Stars going to servicemembers who served behind desks and far from the combat zone — to date the Army has not awarded a single one.

Because the Army spent most of the air campaign on the sidelines with the bulk of its forces never seeing combat, it’s been no surprise soldiers are seeing so few medals.

But for soldiers of 1st Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group, the war was far different.

Arrayed along northern Albania’s border with Kosovo, small 12-man "A-teams" conducted missions that are still considered classified, including guiding in NATO bombers from mountaintop overlooks and coordinating with ethnic Albanian guerrillas fighting just on the other side of the border.

Throughout all of this, Serbian gunners were pounding the Albanian frontier daily with mortar and artillery fire.

Meanwhile, 14 Special Forces troops were sent into Yugoslavia twice aboard Air Force search-and-rescue aircraft to help pull out the downed Stealth pilot.

All that, however, apparently wasn’t enough to earn the coveted medal. Army Secretary Louis Caldera is what regulations call the "approving authority" for all of the service’s top-level awards, but he gave that responsibility to a decorations board in Washington.

"The board found the award recommendations did not meet the award criteria," according to Shari Lawrence, a spokeswoman for the Army’s Personnel Command, which managed the awards board.

The criteria for awarding the Bronze Star is vague at best.

According to Defense Department regulations, the medal is to be awarded for "heroic or meritorious service" to troops "engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States" or an "opposing foreign force."

The Air Medal requirements read similarly, but it is only awarded for action in the air.

The Defense Department launched an inquiry earlier this year into the Air Force and Navy’s awarding of Bronze Stars to servicemembers who served far from harm’s way and determined the regulations did not require physical presence in a combat zone.

That may give the Special Forces soldiers even more pause.

"We felt like the criteria was met, but PERSCOM interpreted the criteria differently," said Grant from Europe’s Special Operations Command in Stuttgart, Germany.

While some in the Army may find the situation hard to take, the Air Force is preparing another awards board of its own to convene soon.

In addition to the 941 Air Medals and 249 Bronze Stars the service has already awarded, according to spokesman Capt. Shane Balken, Air Force officials will consider nominations for an additional 32 Air Medals and two more Bronze Stars.


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.