Veteran says Iran-Contra fallout holds up combat-zone recognition
By COLLIN BREAUX | The News Herald | Published: December 11, 2016
PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. (Tribune News Service) -- Traveling in Honduras with another military police officer, Army veteran Richard Grell pulled his Jeep next to a head-on vehicle crash involving a family and semi-trailer truck.
"There was a whole family in a Dodge Dart," Grell said in VA medical records. "Seven people died in that car, and the truck driver died. I helped a mother and her son."
Though only 19, Grell rendered first aid and drove them to a local hospital. The son's arm was amputated, and he never heard from them again.
The civilian wreck was unrelated to a war, but its sticks with Grell -- as do other Central American memories: a mortuary employee in Panama jokingly holding a human jaw up to his face, an enemy combatant putting a gun to his head while in the jungle, his camp being shot at several times.
But despite such encounters, Grell said Honduras is not -- and never was -- considered a combat zone, and for years the United States government agreed. When he twice went to Honduras in 1984, he was told it was just training and war games, but Grell maintained he was part of an actual war.
President Ronald "Reagan sent a bunch of us to Honduras; it was dangerous," Grell said. "I got shot at. We went on patrols. We got sniped at. I was engaged in at least one battle, shooting at the enemy. ... I always felt this was combat."
Then, after a VA psychologist diagnosed Grell with post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety this year because of his experiences during deployment, at least one agency in the U.S. government reconsidered its classification of the events in Honduras.
Grell, who lives in Panama City Beach and is 52 years old, has been campaigning two years for official acknowledgment, and this year his quest achieved its first victory: The Army Board for Correction of Military Records (ABCMR) granted a request to add Honduras as a deployment for service to his records. Still, the board denied other requested corrections from Grell: the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal (AFEM) and National Defense Service Medal, and official recognition of deployment to Honduras for combat missions.
"We weren't supposed to be there," said Grell, who provided numerous documents and records to The News Herald related to his case. "Why am I getting shot at if this is training and war games? ... Reagan kind of manipulated Congress -- circumvented Congress in my opinion -- to stop communism in Central America, thank God. I was very proud to serve under Reagan and I would again today. ... Congress wouldn't let him do it, what he thought was important. I'm asking that they fix this."
Grell wore a uniform and carried an M-16 with full ammunition while in Honduras, he said. Because combat troops technically were not allowed, he said military police instead were sent to guard Air Force bases that flew reconnaissance missions into Nicaragua and El Salvador.
Grell is not alone in his quest. Because the service is not listed on military records, it is impossible to say how many veterans were deployed there, but about 100 Honduras veterans across the country are similarly lobbying the military and political officials for official recognition, Grell said. His own military service -- primarily as a military police officer, discharged with the rank of SP4 -- stretches from 1983 to 1986 and also includes time spent in Panama.
"They would only send you on short deployments because everything had to be perceived as temporary," he said. "It was very political."
No new medals
Because of the military red tape, service medals for veterans of Honduras can come only through a presidential executive order or congressional legislation, said Grell, who reached out last year to U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham for help. And while he met with her staff members, he said he wasn't fully satisfied with how the situation was handled.
In a letter sent in March 2015 to Graham, who forwarded it to Grell, Army Lt. Col. and Chief of Awards and Decorations Branch Wil Neubauer said there are no plans to create a new award or alter the criteria of any existing award to recognize service in Honduras.
"In 1987 the United States Army Forces Command and the Commanding General, United States Army Military Personnel Center, considered the same request and determined that creating a ribbon or modifying an existing one only to recognize temporary duty in Honduras was remote and would generate a matter of precedent if the Army created or awarded a ribbon based upon temporary duty within a specific geographic area, particularly a noncombat area," Neubauer said.
The Army consistently has adhered to a restrictive policy on the adoption and wear of new ribbons since 1971, despite frequent proposals to create insignia, badges, ribbons and medals to acknowledge specific soldier duties and achievements, Neubauer added.
"Our office has reached out to the Army on this question, and they've made their decision clear. Rep. Graham is going to follow the military's lead on the matter and continue to fight for every veteran to get the care they deserve," Graham's communications director, Matt Harringer, wrote in an emailed statement to The News Herald.
No other veteran has raised a similar issue with Graham's office, Harringer added.
Army Human Resources Command (HRC) spokeswoman Janet Herrick reiterated Neubauer's remarks, adding Grell did receive a Certificate of Achievement for his assignment in 1983-84.
"In (a congressional inquiry) response, we informed Mr. Grell the Army already considered a request in 1987 to create a service award for Honduras and the CG, U.S. Army Personnel Center, determined it inappropriate to create a separate ribbon or to modify an existing one only to recognize temporary duty in Honduras," Herrick wrote in an email to The News Herald. "In preparing that correspondence, (Human Resources Command) verified Mr. Grell's assignment to Panama" from September 1983 to September 1984 as a military police officer and "with temporary duty in Honduras in 1984."
The Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal is authorized for the following service periods in Central America, Herrick added: Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada from Oct. 23 to Nov. 21, 1983; Operation Just Cause in Panama from Dec. 20, 1989, to Jan. 31, 1990; and military operations to assist a friendly nation in El Salvador from Jan. 1, 1981 to Feb. 1, 1992.
Information on Grell's record correction would have to come from ABCMR, Herrick said.
After repeated inquiries, Army spokesman Hank Minitrez responded to The News Herald's requests for comment Friday.
"The Army Review Boards Agency (ARBA) affords currently serving soldiers and veterans the opportunity to appeal personnel actions taken at lower levels of the Army," Minitrez wrote in an email to The News Herald, responding on behalf of the ABCMR. "ARBA is committed to righting the wrongs that service members may have suffered due to flawed personnel systems, processes, changes in policy and legislation or even human error. The Army remains steadfast to enhance the accuracy and integrity of Army military records by performing strategic-level, administrative reviews. The Army Board for Correction of Military Records believes the decision issued to Mr. Grell extensively and very clearly explains the board's position."
In fact, ABCMR might not even have the authority to designate an area a combat zone, and any reward for service would lie with the top government officials and Congress.
"The military awards regulation does not authorize award of the AFEM for service in Honduras," according to a document from the Army Board for Correction of Military Records. "The Awards and Decorations Branch letter noted that there are no plans to create a new award (i.e., AFEM) to recognize service in Honduras. The authority to authorize this award for service in Honduras resides at a level above this board."
Grell's application also called for hostile fire pay and imminent danger pay for himself and affected veterans, which was not granted.
Veterans come forward
Other veterans of the Honduras conflict also spoke with The News Herald, and while their opinions varied, they generally agreed with Grell and wanted recognition for their service.
Wilson Rodriguez, who served from 1986 to 1987 as a battalion communications officer, has contacted several members of Congress for help in Central Florida in getting official recognition, but he hasn't gotten far. He said during the 1980s, the U.S. government was concerned communists were encroaching in Central America.
Rodriguez, who lives in the Tampa Bay area, said when Honduras veterans gather information about their service and try to get their records fixed, it's the same response -- thanks for their service, but it wasn't a hazardous area.
"They said nothing, regurgitated the criteria: 'If it comes up in a subcommittee, we will take it into consideration,' " Rodriguez said. "I tip my hat to (Grell). He's done a lot of research. He's been quite impressive."
Jeff Norgrove, who lives in Michigan and served in Honduras in 1987 and 1988, said he considers the deployment part of a war because they were shot at by the Sandinistas, who also fought the anti-communist Contras supported by Reagan. Norgrove said he hasn't reached out to his political representatives for help and doesn't plan to.
Norgrove added that while a lot of troops served in Honduras, he doesn't think the Department of Defense wants to get involved in acknowledging it because it opens up a proverbial can of worms.
Veterans injured there were never given benefits, he said.
"I believe they should be recognized for anything they did at that point," Norgrove said. "Once they're issued the Expeditionary Medal, they should be able to join the VFW." Grell's quest for recognition was spurred by his inability to join the Veterans of Foreign Wars organization, which requires "Service in a war, campaign, or expedition on foreign soil or in hostile waters," according to the organization's website.
Norgrove said he doesn't ever think Honduras will be designated a combat zone and added the sheer amount of paperwork and red tape involved with opening records and making phone calls could be tough for Honduras veterans, who are generally in their 50s.
"I see why people wouldn't want to talk about it after keeping it under wraps for so many decades," he said. "No one wants to acknowledge it."
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