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Most Bronze Stars for Kosovo went to officers

By JON R. ANDERSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 5, 2000

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series.

In Vietnam, the Bronze Star was sometimes referred to as the "Officers’ Good Conduct Medal." Often, say veterans, it was doled out to the brass for doing little more than their jobs.

Veterans of last year’s 78-day air blitz against Yugoslavia might say the same thing about the Bronze Stars awarded from their short conflict.

Of the 185 Bronze Stars awarded by the Air Force in the nine months since the war ended, eight out of every nine medals have gone to officers, mostly lieutenant colonels and above. The trend in the Navy was largely the same. The Army, which had the most troops living and working in the combat zone, awarded no Bronze Stars.

"Almost anyone who was in the combat zone in Vietnam got a Bronze Star," said one Army general in Europe, "especially the officers."

"It kind of meant you were there ... a recognition of what you might call the fear factor," he added.

Still, he said, "with all of the hullabaloo over awards after Desert Storm, you’d think people would be smarter about it."

The findings are part of a Stars and Stripes review of Bronze Stars awarded during Operation Allied Force.

Medal for ground force

Those unfamiliar with the Bronze Star —the nation’s fourth highest combat decoration — might make the mistake of thinking that because planes are piloted by officers, and this was, after all, an "air" campaign, that it’s only natural for officers to get the most awards. But that’s what Air Medals and Distinguished Flying Crosses are for. In fact, the Air Force has handed out more than 900 Air Medals and 111 DFC’s — with more pending —not to mention 13 Silver Stars.

No, the Bronze Star isn’t for flying. Criteria for the medal even rule it out, saying "for heroic or meritorious service not involving participation in aerial flight."

The Bronze Star was created during World War II for folks fighting on the ground who weren’t eligible for the Air Medal and didn’t quite deserve the Silver Star.

Officials say the unique nature of Allied Force — bombing from afar with planes coming in sometimes as far away as the United States —has led to the vast majority of the Air Force Bronze Stars going to people who were never in the combat zone. That’s the first time in history that has happened en masse like that, say medals experts and military historians.

Looking for answers

Air Force officials are harder pressed, however, to explain why so few enlisted troops got the coveted award.

"Traditionally, the Air Force gives Commendation Medals to our young officers and enlisted," said Lt. Col. Nancy Lee, who helped managed the influx of awards nominations for the Air Force in Europe after the conflict.

Indeed, the Air Force doled out more than 3,700 Commendation Medals and a whopping 10,500 of the less-prestigious Air Force Achievement Medal.

Plus, she added, "not every commander received a Bronze Star. Not every wing or group commander received a Bronze Star." But a lot of them did.

In fact, more than half of the Bronze Stars, 102 in all, went to commanding officers of everything from civil engineering squadrons to bomber wings.

Of those in the enlisted ranks fortunate enough to get the medal, most were senior noncommissioned officers — 12 of the 25 enlisted awards went to chief master sergeants, the top of the enlisted chain.

Where colonels were getting Bronze Stars for putting up tent cities in Aviano, Italy, and giving briefings at Air Force headquarters at Ramstein, Germany, it took getting shot at deep inside Serbia while rescuing downed pilots for five of the enlisted airmen to get Bronze Stars — four of them pinning on the "V" Device for valor, the only Air Force personnel to earn that right.

Specific by design

The criteria set up by a U.S. Air Force Europe board to adjudicate all top-level awards for the conflict make it hard for enlisted airmen to be considered.

Lee explained USAFE wanted all medal awards to be consistent. The services took a beating after 1991 Gulf War with Iraq for haphazard and seemingly random awarding of top medals, and they didn’t want a repeat of that.

Officially, the only criteria laid down by the Defense Department and the Air Force are that the Bronze Star is to be awarded for heroic or meritorious service to "any person … engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States" or an "opposing foreign force."

But USAFE’s 13-member awards board, which consisted of the top leaders of the air campaign, followed special guidelines.

Among them, said Lee, were three questions to be asked before a person would be eligible for the Bronze Star, including:

  • Did their action contribute significantly to the combat operations?

  • Without that person, would the operation have been as successful?

  • Were they in charge?

While a "yes" to any one of the questions would open the door to consideration, each question also seems to have shut out virtually all junior and mid-rank enlisted.

Although Lee said "none of our decorations say anything about rank," Bronze Stars are considered "a more senior medal. It all has to do with span of responsibility."

If that’s the case, the span of responsibility should at least be mentioned in the criteria.

"Yeah, that bothers me," said one Air Force colonel, who was ordered to write up several of his people for Bronze Stars. "It shouldn’t just be for officers."

Deserving recognition

For those in the Navy, the pattern was virtually the same: It went mostly to officers and, among those, mostly commanders.

Of the 69 Bronze Stars awarded, all but five went to officers. And again, four of the five enlisted had to stick their necks out to get it.

Ashore as explosive disposal experts, the sailors were responsible for clearing mine fields and dud bombs out of the way as NATO peacekeepers first rolled into Kosovo after the air war ended. They also each won the right to pin on the "V" Device for valor.

The only other enlisted sailor to earn the Bronze Star was Chief Gregory McHone. According to his citation, McHone became the Navy’s "first chief petty officer to assume the duties as a Battle Force Tomahawk Land Attack Cruise Missile Officer," overseeing more than 150 launches of the cruise missile from ten different platforms.

The rest of the medal recipients were captains and executive officers of warships and squadrons as well as mostly senior staff officers within a variety of Navy commands.

Among the top officers to get the nod were Adm. Daniel Murphy, the commander of 6th Fleet, and Rear Adm. William W. Copeland, who commanded the Theodore Roosevelt Battle Group.

Like the Air Force, Navy officials had little to say about the lack of enlisted sailors among those receiving the Bronze Star.

"The awards were given to personnel," said Navy spokesman Capt. Steve Honda, "who were deserving of recognition for sustained superior performance or specific meritorious achievement within the awards guidance spirit."

Is that to say that more enlisted sailors provided no "sustained superior performance" or "specific meritorious achievement"?

"There were other awards given," said Honda. "Many others."

With flying medals largely reserved for pilots, most if not all of the 13 Distinguished Flying Crosses went to officers as well as the 545 Air Medals, not to mention two Silver Stars.

Of the awards Navy officials have records of in Europe, that leaves 22 Meritorious Service Medals, 189 Navy Commendation Medals and 265 Navy Achievement Medals, all split between officers and enlisted.

What kind of message?

While few people will say they like it, for most such emphasis in awarding officers comes as little surprise.

"It’s an old perennial problem —this issue between officers and enlisted," said Shelby Stanton, author of several books on military history as well as uniforms and decorations.

In the end, he says, the unfortunate thing is the message it sends to the enlisted ranks.

"Is a junior enlisted man’s valor or meritorious service any less than an officer’s?" he asks, quoting the criteria for the Bronze Star from memory. "I’ll tell you this: Any enlisted man dealing with hot ordnance on the flight line at an air base or on the deck of an aircraft carrier is a hell of a lot more heroic than any jerk sitting behind a desk coordinating strike plans."

And one senior Bronze Star recipient agrees.

"Frankly, I don’t think most of the people who got it, deserved it," said the Allied Force veteran. "To be honest, I don’t think I deserved mine."


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.

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