Marine commandant-to-be regrets problem with service ribbons
By SANDRA JONTZ | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 8, 2003
ARLINGTON, Va. — The Marine Corps’ commandant-to-be, Lt. Gen. Michael Hagee, has stopped wearing three ribbons because they have not been found to be sanctioned by his service record.
Hagee says he is confident he has earned the ribbons, even though a thorough check, or a scrub, of his awards record, which he ordered several months ago, so far has not found support for them. The scrub is continuing.
“This is my fault. The last time I did a real scrub of my record was before I was coming into the zone for brigadier general,” said Hagee, who was promoted to that rank Oct. 1, 1995.
“Back in August-September time frame, when it looked like I was going to be confirmed as commandant of the Marine Corps, I requested I get a very detailed scrub of all my awards to make sure that I had them exactly right.” Hagee was confirmed as commandant on Oct. 2.
He found no documentation saying he was authorized to wear three awards he says he should be entitled to: The Vietnam Gallantry Cross Individual Citation, the Humanitarian Service Medal and the Navy Unit Commendation.
Hagee, who until November led 45,000 Marines at Camp Pendleton, Calif., as the commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, becomes the Corps’ 33rd commandant during a change of command ceremony Monday in Annapolis, Md. He replaces Gen. James L. Jones, named the Supreme Allied Commander Europe and commander of the U.S. European Command.
It is unclear if Hagee told anyone about the discrepancy before Stars and Stripes began asking questions Friday, based on a comparison of Hagee’s photo as a three-star general and the new one as commandant.
Jones’ public affairs staff told him Friday that Stripes was asking about the issue. They would not say whether Jones knew about it beforehand.
Hagee said he did not remember when he told Jones.
Hagee told Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for the first time Tuesday.
“I have full confidence in Gen. Hagee,” Rumsfeld told Stripes. “He briefed me and I believe everything he told me. His file does not show the documentation, but that does not mean he doesn’t rate for the awards, that he did not earn them. … It’s how the process works. It’s an antiquated system.”
Hagee said he does not know why a review of his record seven years ago did not note the lack of documentation, but he said it’s an example of the problems with the record-keeping system.
While Hagee acknowledged in a news conference Tuesday that the wearing of unauthorized medals might violate the Uniform Code of Military Justice, he said that each incident must be considered on a case-by-case basis and that he believes he earned the awards and simply cannot find the supporting paperwork.
“Even though I know that I was awarded the Vietnamese cross of gallantry, even though I had the paperwork, even though my name wasn’t on [a list] for the Humanitarian Service award, and even though they haven’t completed the search on the Navy Unit Commendation, I did not have documentation for those three and it was time to take my picture.
“I could either let it go as it was and pursue [proving he was entitled to wear the ribbons], or I could take those awards off and continue to pursue it. I believe the right thing to do was to take the awards off and continue to pursue it.”
He’ll especially pursue the Humanitarian Service Medal, “because there are a number of Marines out there whose names are not listed, and who, in fact, were there. We need to get that resolved.”
The Humanitarian Service Medal, established in 1977, is awarded to servicemembers who, after April 1, 1975, distinguished themselves by meritorious direct participation in a Defense Department-approved significant military act or operation of a humanitarian nature.
The Vietnam Gallantry Cross was awarded by Vietnam to individuals at the unit, regiment, brigade, division, corps and armed forces levels for valorous achievement in combat during the Vietnam War between March 1, 1961, and March 28, 1973.
The most famous incident in which a senior military officer’s decorations were called into question occurred in 1996, with then Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jeremy “Mike” Boorda.
Boorda, who was the first enlisted sailor to rise to the Navy’s top position, committed suicide on May 16, 1996. He was named CNO in 1994.
No one knows exactly why Boorda took his life at the age of 56, but one factor allegedly was his distress over an upcoming article in Newsweek.
Newsweek was investigating whether Boorda had been wearing two combat “V” decorations — tiny bronze pins which signify valor in combat — which he had not officially earned.
Krulak weighs in
Hagee is not the type of man who would have intentionally donned ribbons he did not earn, said former Marine Commandant Charles Krulak.
“This is a man of integrity,” he said. “He did the right thing and we ought to be applauding that. … I have known him for years and he’s absolutely a man of integrity. The reality of life is that service record books, particularly involving awards and decorations, are not always accurate.
“[The Vietnam Gallantry Cross] came through the South Vietnamese award systems and was an actual document written on the flimsiest of paper … a piece of paper that is like toilet paper. That’s what it comes on,” Krulak said. “If it ever made it from a war zone all the way to Marine Corps headquarters is hard to say.”
Kudos from ex-boss
His career background includes spending a year beginning in 1995 at the CIA, first as a senior military assistant to John M. Deutch, and then as an executive assistant when Deutch became the agency’s director.
“He is one of the most excellent general officers I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with and I’ve worked with hundreds,” Deutch, now an Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said during a brief telephone interview Monday.
When asked what made Hagee stand out from the “hundreds,” he said: “His character. He has high character, high standards, he’s intelligent and his honesty is beyond reproach.”
Hagee’s stint at the CIA earned him the National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal, the highest award bestowed by the U.S. intelligence community.
‘They do not define me’
“Do I have ego tied up with these ribbons? No. If I did, maybe I would have been a little more aggressive. I don’t think about them. I am proud of the ribbons I have. … But they do not define me,” Hagee said.
“Not only did I spend a lot of time doing this, there are a lot of people who have been working on this. We can’t do this for all Marines. One of the lessons, and I really do take lessons from this, one the individual needs to be more aggressive. Having said that, we need to have a system, which we don’t have now … that is more responsive and easier to use.”
Hagee reiterated he thinks he did the right thing by removing the ribbons before posing for his official commandant photo.
Part of the armed services culture is the wearing of awards for which an individual rates.
“One thing I’ve learned is that we don’t have the most efficient [record-keeping] system. It’s not the system’s fault, it’s still the individual’s fault, but the system we have makes it a little more difficult,” he said.
Hagee’s frustration is felt Corpswide, said Col. Charles Mugno, deputy director of the personnel management division, which oversees the Corps’ Awards Branch.
“It’s a problem for many, many Marines,” Mugno said. “We have an archaic system that until recently wasn’t automated. There are problems in the time delay between unit action and unit recognition and getting information out to thousands of Marines.”
Awards Branch has unsuccessfully searched through the 1980s for documentation to support Hagee’s Navy Unit Commendation and will continue the search, he said. He believes it was awarded in the 1970s.
On his three-star general photograph, Hagee also wears two bronze service stars on his Navy Sea Service deployment ribbon instead of one, which an Awards Branch check shows. Conversely, in the old photo, he wears one bronze service star on his Navy and Marine Corps Overseas Service ribbon instead of the two apparently authorized.
According to his service record from the Records Branch, Lt. Gen. Michael Hagee is rated to wear the following:
¶ Defense Distinguished Service Medal with oak leaf cluster
¶ Defense Superior Service Medal
¶ Legion of Merit with two gold stars
¶ Bronze Star Medal with Combat “V”
¶ Defense Meritorious Service Medal
¶ Meritorious Service Medal with one gold star
¶ Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal with one gold star
¶ Combat Action Ribbon
¶ Joint Meritorious Unit Award with two oak leaf clusters
¶ Navy Meritorious Unit Commendation with one bronze star
¶ National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal
¶ National Defense Service Medal with two bronze service stars
¶ Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal
¶ Vietnam Service Medal with three bronze service stars
¶ Southwest Asia Service Medal with one bronze service star
¶ Navy Sea Service Deployment Ribbon with one bronze service star
¶ Navy and Marine Corps Overseas Service Ribbon with one bronze service star
¶ Republic of Vietnam Meritorious Unit Citation (Gallantry Cross Color with palm and frame)
¶ Republic of Vietnam Meritorious Unit Citation (Civil Actions Color with palm and frame ribbon bar)
¶ Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal
¶ Kuwait Liberation Medal (Emirate of Kuwait)