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

This time last year, an Air Force lieutenant colonel was leading a team of mechanics and maintenance crews at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., making sure the B-2 bomber was a regular player in the air campaign against Yugoslavia some 5,000 miles away. For his efforts, he is among the nearly 200 Air Force members to receive the nation’s fourth-highest combat award, the Bronze Star.

And like the lieutenant colonel, the vast majority of those who received the coveted awards did so for actions far from the combat zone.

Last year’s Operation Allied Force was in many ways a war of firsts. It was NATO’s first all-out military campaign and it also was the first time a war has been won by air power alone. And it was the first war fought predominantly — from one side, at least —from afar.

So far, in fact, that it has radically changed the way troops are being recognized for their wartime contributions. For the first time in U.S. history, scores of troops who never went near the combat zone are being given Bronze Star combat medals, while — perhaps ironically — most of the ground troops closest to the fighting have gotten none.

Meaningful decorationFor many civilians, awards like the Bronze Star Medal, with its red, white and blue ribbon, may seem like little more than colorful ornaments to decorate fancy uniforms. But for those who wear those uniforms, medals — especially combat awards — are not only a source of professional pride and boosted morale, but often are linked to promotions and key career-building assignments.

Such was evidenced by the storm of controversy that erupted when three 1st Infantry Division soldiers captured in Macedonia — and beaten before their release a month later — were awarded the Purple Heart, the nation’s oldest award. The Purple Heart is reserved for those wounded in combat and is listed below the Bronze Star in the military’s "order of precedence" chart.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Boorda committed suicide in 1996 only hours after learning he was being investigated by Newsweek for improperly wearing combat medals from Vietnam.

Make no mistake, say experts, medals are important to those uniforms.

"The Bronze Star was initially created for combat-fighting men," said Frank Foster, author of the Complete Guide to All U.S. Military Medals: 1939 to Present. "It seems awfully strange that people far from the combat zone would qualify for it."

Jim Thompson, author of Decorations, Medals, Badges and Insignia of U.S. Marine Corps and the soon-to-be-released book by the same title for the Navy, laughed out loud when called for comment.

"I guess I’m surprised and a little alarmed that our decorations —particularly a combat decoration — are being given out this way.

"The message this sends is that the medal has been diluted," he said. "They’ve stretched it too far."

Engaging the enemyThe criteria for the Bronze Star medal are specific.

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

What qualified as the combat zone for Operation Allied Force was equally specific.

According to President Clinton’s executive order signed April 13, the combat zone was defined as Yugoslavia, Albania, the Adriatic Sea and the northern Ionian Sea. It also included the airspace above these areas, thus covering the aircrews of long-range bombers and naval aircraft flying missions into the combat zone. Servicemembers in Macedonia and Bosnia were already considered inside the combat zone because of earlier designations.

According to the medal’s criteria, the Bronze Star can only be awarded for action on the ground. The Air Medal covers heroism in flight.

The citation for the lieutenant colonel in Missouri, like most, reads that he earned the medal for "meritorious achievement while engaged in ground operations against an opposing armed force." In Missouri.

And he was not alone. At least four more at Whiteman got the Bronze Star as well, including the support commander, the operations commander and the leader of the bomber wing itself — none of them for actions in the combat zone.

Closer, but still hundreds of miles from the fighting in Yugoslavia, the civil engineering squadron commander at Aviano Air Base, Italy, got the Bronze Star nod for building a "miraculous" tent city, accord ing to his citation. So, too, did the three colonels who spent the vast majority of the war "engaged in ground operations against an opposing armed force" behind their desks at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, working on overflight clearances and basing rights.

In fact, of the 185 medals handed out by the Air Force in the nine months since the war ended, nine out of every ten have been awarded for service far from the combat zone in the Balkans.

A mixed bagStars and Stripes reviewed the Bronze Stars that have been awarded from NATO’s 78-day effort to drive Slobodan Milosevic out of Kosovo. The results show what several military experts and combat historians describe as a disturbing trend not only in the Air Force, but in the Navy as well.

Take Adm. James Ellis’ right-hand man during the air campaign, a Navy captain who worked in Naples, Italy, as the executive assistant to the commander of NATO’s U.S. contingent. For that work, the captain also received the Bronze Star, along with 69 other sailors. His citation, signed by Ellis, said the captain "distinguished himself by meritorious achievement in connection with action against the enemy."

In fact, Ellis gave five members of his Naples-based staff Bronze Stars, only one of which — to Marine Brig. Gen. James Amos — was for actions actually in the combat zone.

Ellis declined to comment.

Most of the other Navy awards went to those in the fleet where aircraft carriers and cruise missile-launching ships and submarines pressed the attack from the sea. Because there was a threat from Yugoslavia’s own navy, the waters around the Balkans — the Adriatic and Ionian Seas — were considered part of the combat zone.

So was Albania because it is within range of Serbian artillery and long-range rockets, and threat of counterattack was greatest there.

As the war kicked into high gear, 5,000 Army soldiers, in what was dubbed Task Force Hawk, slogged their way into the muddy fields and rugged mountains of Albania and set up attack bases, poised to launch tank-killing helicopters and missiles into Kosovo. Although they were never used in combat, two aviators were killed training in Albania’s highlands —the only casualties of the conflict —and many of those troops were among the first to roll into a still smoldering Kosovo.

Since the war has ended, Army peacekeepers have driven back riots while being pummeled with rocks and sticks, shelled by mortars, shot at and injured by land mines.

None of them have received the Bronze Star.

Open interpretationsFew in the Army have heard about the Air Force’s and Navy’s awards. But reaction is almost always the same when they do.

"What? You’re kidding, right?" said one Army major, who deployed to Albania during the war. "Well, I guess that’s one standard. I have no problem with a pilot or aircrew member who actually flew into harm’s way getting whatever they deserve, but, wow, a Bronze Star to someone who never set foot in the combat zone? That’s amazing."

That’s what many outside the military are saying as well.

"I’ve never heard of anyone getting a Bronze Star who wasn’t at least in the combat zone," said Dennis Giangreco, managing editor of Military Review, a monthly magazine on combat history. "That’s a new one. I can see people who have received Bronze Stars in the past being none too please about it."

Frank Dugan is one of those people. During his two tours in Vietnam, he received three Bronze Stars. One he says he "really earned," fighting his way from a landing helicopter in a "hot" landing zone. The other two were "only" part of a campaign to recapture lost bunkers, he said.

"I cannot recall a single in stance of any service person getting a Bronze Star who didn’t go into the combat zone," said Dugan, who’s now a top official for one of the United States’ largest veterans groups, the 2.8 million- member American Legion. "Frankly, I think it sets a bad precedent."

Word of these latest Bronze Stars is already spreading among veterans. "We’ve gotten several angry letters," Dugan said.

Ironically, the Bronze Star was created to give the rank-and-file soldiers —the proverbial ground-pounders in the Army — something to be proud of while slugging it out through World War II. Gen. George C. Marshall convinced President Franklin Roosevelt to start minting the medals because pilots and aircrews were getting Air Medals, but the infantryman had no comparable award.

"Marshall never meant for people at the staff headquarters to get the Bronze Star," said Larry Bland, editor of the four-volume Papers of George Catlett Marshall. "It was for the grunts who were doing the hard work and who were actually getting shot at."

Navy and Air Force leaders, however, say the times have changed.

Sign of the timesWhen it comes to medals, said Lt. Col. Nancy Lee, "the Air Force has its own philosophy."

"We fought the air campaign from remote locations," said Lee, who helped manage the thousands of nominations for awards from Allied Force.

"The senior leadership strongly believed we fought this from home bases," said Lee, who sat in all five of the Air Force’s boards that reviewed all top-level award nominations like the Bronze Star. "The way we’re fighting our wars is different now."

The conflict, she said, "was not Vietnam, where we set up our wings in Vietnam. It was not Desert Storm, where we flew from Riyadh."

Plus, Lee said, when it comes to the Bronze Star there is "nothing in the criteria that limits it to a geographic area."

That may be true, said Senior Master Sgt. Fred Klock, who heads up the Air Force’s Awards and Decorations department at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, but "historically it’s always been associated with combat. It’s only been given when people are engaged with enemy."

In this case, said Klock, "it sounds like a liberal definition of ‘engaged with enemy’ was being applied."

Klock said this is an issue the Air Force will have to come to grips with in the coming years.

"Hopefully it’s not diluting the medal, but this is something the Air Force is wrestling with as we move to an expeditionary force. Everything doesn’t fit into a neat little box anymore."

But he’s not convinced the Bronze Stars for Kosovo were inappropriate.

"Hopefully, it’s giving them recognition for a hard job done well."

Historically, he concedes, the Meritorious Service Medal is usually reserved for just that kind of award outside of combat zones.

Barbara Wilson agrees. Wilson is the head of the Navy’s Medals and Decorations department at the Pentagon. "The MSM is the Bronze Star equivalent outside the combat zone," she said.

Any Bronze Star awarded for the same thing would be "inappropriate," she said.

"The regulations are clear: heroic or meritorious service in connection with combat operations," says Wilson, quoting the Navy’s policy. "That means you have to be in a combat zone."

Medals are always awarded on a case-by-base basis, she said, but for a Bronze Star being awarded outside of the combat zone, "there would have to be an exception to policy."

Navy Capt. Steve Honda, spokesman for Ellis, argues all 69 of the Bronze Stars were appropriate.

"These are all people who were directly involved in the operation," Honda said. "When these awards were vetted it was done in accordance and in the spirit of our awards manual. We were going by the guidance."

Plus, said Honda, defining the combat zone could be open to interpretation.

"If you want to define the combat zone as those who received tax exclusion and hostile fire pay, people in Italy qualified," he said.

Several of the officers may have traveled into the combat zone aboard ship or in Macedonia or Albania, Honda said, but he could not be certain.

Regardless, President Clinton recently announced the creation of the Kosovo Campaign Medal to recognize servicemembers involved in Allied Force. Those who qualify for it include troops who served in areas already considered the combat zone, plus the rest of the Balkans, and Italy as well.

While that may lend support to the Bronze Stars being awarded to the Navy and Air Force people who spent the war in Italy, it will make it tough for the dozens of servicemembers in Germany, England, Spain and the United States who will inevitably have to answer the tough question of how they got a Bronze Star for fighting in Kosovo, but were not officially part of the Kosovo campaign.

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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