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On the afternoon of May 16, 1996, Adm. Jeremy “Mike” Boorda, Chief of Naval Operations, drove from his Pentagon office to Tingey House, the CNO’s home in the Washington Navy Yard.

He walked upstairs and typed two letters on his home computer, one to his wife and one to his sailors. Then he took a .38 from his desk drawer, walked into the back yard, and shot himself in the chest.

His suicide note said he’d killed himself because some reporters were about to accuse him of improperly wearing tiny “V” devices signifying combat service aboard two ships during the Vietnam War. They were waiting at the Pentagon to question him when he pulled the trigger.

“I love our Navy so much, and you who are the heart and soul of our Navy,” Boorda wrote in the note to the fleet, according to the Washingtonian magazine’s account, “that I couldn’t bear to bring dishonor to you.”

Civilians find it nearly incomprehensible that a man like Boorda would take his life over two strips of colored ribbon less than an inch long. It is less surprising to combat veterans, who know those medals are more than just “chest candy,” especially the ones that signify valor.

Service ribbons represent duty, honor and courage — the most fundamental values of the military and, in a larger sense, manhood itself.

Gen. George Washington created the first U.S. combat decoration, the Badge of Military Merit, in 1782, but military awards remained relatively rare until well into the 20th Century. Since then, the services have added dozens of awards for service as well as bravery, and for different levels of valor.

Some, such as the Medal of Honor and the Silver Star, are awarded only for actions taken in combat.

Others, such as the Soldier’s Medal, the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, and the Airman’s Medal, are reserved for heroism or meritorious acts that do not involve contact with an enemy.

Finally, a third category of medals, such as the Bronze Star, serves both purposes. The addition of a tiny brass “V” device, for valor, on the ribbon of the medal indicates that the awardee earned the decoration in battle. The absence of the “V” indicates meritorious service.

Many servicemembers complain “medal inflation” has made it much too easy to win medals, especially for officers and rear echelon troops.

The result, say some, is that awards designed to give troops a boost end up bringing them down instead.

“In our past, valor awards and exemplary courage in combat were the exception and not the rule,” wrote 1st Lt. Kelly Haux, 33, of the Pennsylvania National Guard’s 628th Military Intelligence Battalion, in an e-mail from Camp White Eagle, Kosovo. “However, it seems today that valor awards are given out so often that it seems to damage and hinder a unit’s morale.”

“When given for a truly deserved act they bolster the unit’s pride and the unit members morale,” said Air Force Maj. David Nadeau, 41, of the Combined Arms Operations Center in Al Udeid, Qatar, also by e-mail. “When given arbitrarily for insignificant incidents, they become a joke and cheapen the process for those who deserve the true recognition.”

Nadeau thinks the awards stack should be changed to raise the value of valor awards compared with service awards. “There is no way an award for someone serving a desk job should outweigh a valor or bravery act,” he said.

As much jawing as there is over medals questionably awarded, soldiers say the bigger issue is that so much legitimate valor goes unrecognized.

“The people who get them deserve them,” said Sgt. Stephen Wagasky, 21, of the 1st Infantry Division’s 1st Battalion, 7th Field Artillery, winner of two Army Commendation Medals (ARCOMs) with valor. “But there’s a lot of people who deserve them that don’t get them.”

Combat veterans have their own views of what bravery means.

First Sgt. Michael Grinston, 37, of the 1-7 Field Artillery, earned two Bronze Stars with valor in Iraq last year, both times from extracting outmanned platoons from ambushes, then killing his attackers.

He sees his own acts as simply fulfilling his duty to keep his soldiers alive. What impresses him, though, is the young soldiers in his unit who kept fighting no matter what. To him, valor is moving forward when common sense tells you not to.

“That’s brave — to watch your fellow soldiers get killed, and then go right back out,” Grinston said. “The reasonable person says, ‘I won’t take that road, so I’ll stay back here.’ These guys went forward.”

Pfc. James Connor, 20, of the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, gives credit to the soldiers who give medical treatment under fire. Last fall near Samarra, a car bomb exploded near his Bradley fighting vehicle, sending shrapnel into his face.

His buddy, Spc. Nick Cademartori, 23, put his combat lifesaving skills to work by bandaging Connor’s face and preparing to medevac him out. Cademartori earned an Army Commendation medal for his work.

“It’s the people helping the guys who get hurt,” Connor said. “Cade, he helped me when I got hit by a suicide bomber. I was freaking out on the inside. I was scared. I thought I was going to be blind.”

Cademartori, for his part, felt like he barely held himself together. Connor’s apparent calm after nearly being killed awed him so much, he wrote about on his soldier blog, He said Connor was so cool, he offered him his own knife to cut bandages.

“I am no hero,” Cademartori wrote shortly after the incident. “Hero is a 20-year-old Tennessee boy who has metal fragments in both eyes, but still calmly grabs his knife to make sure his fumble-fingered [combat life saver] can help him.”

What nearly all troops who earn valor awards share is a belief that they’ve done nothing that merits special praise. They recoil at the use of the word hero — not only out of modesty, but also because it is an epithet hurled at them by drill sergeants in boot camp.

“Those soldiers who do receive them NEVER believe that they deserve them,” wrote Sgt. 1st Class LisaLyn DeWitt, 36, of the 12th Aviation Brigade, from Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan. “They are true heroes.”

Medal recipients frequently have mixed feelings about their awards. Usually the ribbon is linked to the death or serious injury of someone they cared about, or some other harrowing event.

“Awards, especially in wartime, nine out of 10 times you get after something bad happens,” said Sgt. Charles Fray, 22, of the 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, who won an ARCOM with valor for the unsuccessful effort to save the life of his platoon leader, 1st Lt. Andrew Houghton, after a rocket-propelled grenade attack last summer in Iraq.

“I went and stuck it in my drawer,” said Spc. Adrian Stone, who won a similar award for the same event. “When I look at it, I think of Lieutenant Houghton dying.”

Yet for all the controversy surrounding valor awards, a look at the stories surrounding them can’t fail to impress how often ordinary servicemembers do extraordinary things under appalling circumstances.

Such as Marine Lance Cpl. Thomas Adametz, who darted out of a besieged house filled with Marines under intense fire during the first battle of Fallujah in April 2004 to grab an abandoned Squad Automatic Weapon and started shooting. He kept firing until the barrel overheated, protecting his buddies inside.

Or Army Staff Sgt. Serena Di Virgilio, a medic with the 230th Military Police Company, who was in a three-vehicle convoy attacked by rocket-propelled grenades near Baghdad. Although she herself was riddled with shrapnel wounds, she treated all of the other wounded soldiers in the convoy before accepting medical treatment herself.

Or the late Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith, a combat engineer from the 3rd Infantry Division’s 11th Engineer Battalion, who took over the gun on an M-113 armored personnel carrier and fired 300 rounds in 15 minutes to prevent a courtyard command post near the Baghdad airport from being overrun by a larger enemy force during the April 2003 invasion of Iraq. He was killed by enemy fire and earned the nation’s ultimate symbol of bravery: the Medal of Honor.

After the World War II Battle for Iwo Jima, Adm. Chester Nimitz famously declared that “uncommon valor was a common virtue.” In this Stars and Stripes special section, you will read the stories of dozens of men and women of today’s U.S. armed forces who still live that credo.

Stripes reporter Lisa Burgess contributed to this report.

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