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thedrifter
11-12-06, 10:00 AM
Valor medal process tarnished?
By Steve Liewer
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
November 12, 2006

By any measure, Army Staff Sgt. David Bellavia robed himself in glory while fighting in Iraq.

After telling his squad to take positions outside, he entered an enemy-held house during the second battle of Fallujah on Nov. 10, 2004. Under fire and moving from room to room, he killed four insurgents and wounded one.

Bellavia's actions in the home and elsewhere that day saved the lives of three squads and earned him the awe of fellow soldiers. His unit nominated him for a Medal of Honor. Instead, he received a Silver Star for combat heroism.

His experience with the military awards process has turned Bellavia into a crusader against it. Now out of the Army, he has joined a widening and sometimes bitter debate over how the services reward valor - a debate that has prompted a major Pentagon review of the standards.

Bellavia sees a capricious system tilted in favor of officers and against enlisted grunts, who do most of the fighting. Medals are frequently awarded by desk-bond generals and colonels serving well outside the combat zone, he said.

The significant differences among the service branches regarding what constitutes valor also bother Bellavia.

"You have guys who have lost their limbs, and all they're getting is a Purple Heart," said Bellavia, a resident of Batavia, N.Y., and a co-founder of a pro-war veterans' organization.

Sniping over medals of valor crops up during every war. But several military experts said it has never been more intense than it is over Iraq and Afghanistan, where guerrilla ambushes can turn supply lines into front lines with the explosion of a single bomb.

To Vietnam War veteran and military historian Bing West, the awards system is a scandal.

"It's out of control," said West, whose book "No True Glory" chronicled the Fallujah battles of 2004. "The overall system is broken and does a great disservice to the individuals who served."

The Department of Defense has tacitly admitted the problem. Last summer, Pentagon officials created a commission to update the rules.

The 20-member panel includes mid-grade officers and senior enlisted members from each branch of the military. They will hold biweekly meetings through March, then produce recommendations for the defense secretary, said Bill Carr, the deputy undersecretary for military personnel policy.

The commission's mandate includes adopting unified guidelines for awards that all of the services give out, such as the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, Carr said. It also will clarify the differences between awards given for service and those that celebrate valor.

The commission will look at whether combat awards can go to troops serving anywhere in the world, as the Air Force advocates, or only to those serving in the war theater, as the other services argue.

Overall, the panel "really is wide open for anything a military service wants to raise," Carr said.

Still, he considers the process a routine update, not the major overhaul demanded by critics.

"I think it's fine-tuning," he said. "Most believe the process, as it is today, is working."

The troops themselves have a strong sense of who deserves what and, more importantly, who doesn't.

Sgt. Ronn Cantu, 28, who served in the same battalion as Bellavia during 2004-05, recalled the reaction when his unit commander read a citation bestowing a medal to a soldier for doing his job as a gunner.

"There was snickering and looks exchanged among the guys in formation," said Cantu, who will return to Iraq in December with his new unit, the 1st Cavalry Division. "We just said 'Oh, well.' "

Combat troops disclaim any interest in medals, and no one worries about Silver Stars or Navy Crosses in the heat of battle. But when a general pins on a valor award, service members pay attention to who gets what.

"Marines will humbly say, 'It doesn't matter.' Well, let me tell you, it does matter," said Maj. Douglas Zembiec, who commanded a highly decorated Marine Corps company from Camp Pendleton during battles in Fallujah. "The men do appreciate awards. They reinforce positive, valorous action."

Valor awards are intertwined with the military's finely honed tradition of honor.

The awards process is complex and, at least to the troops, mysterious. A service member's command gathers eyewitness accounts and someone writes up a narrative with a recommendation for a medal.

That recommendation proceeds up the chain of command. The most commonly given valor awards - the Bronze Star and the Commendation Medal, awarded by the Army, Air Force and Navy/Marine Corps - are decided by review boards within the member's own unit. The recommendation can be approved, upgraded, downgraded or rejected.

The military's highest awards - the Medal of Honor, the Navy Cross, the Air Force Cross, the Distinguished Service Cross and the Silver Star - need Pentagon approval, a longer process.

Recognizing valor is a tricky business; the criteria are highly subjective and rife with ambiguity. Jealousy and second-guessing are almost inevitable.

Should an Army cook who grabbed a machine gun and repelled an enemy attack get a higher award than someone who was trained to fire that gun? Should an officer be more highly rewarded for courageous deeds because he carries more responsibility into battle, or should an enlisted soldier get the higher award for fulfilling duties above his pay grade?

These are the kinds of questions that medal arbiters must sort out, typically months after an event took place and with only the written statements of witnesses for guidance.

"The people who need to make the decision don't really know what happened," Bellavia said.

Bellavia's nomination for the Medal of Honor was written for his unit by an embedded reporter who witnessed his actions in the Fallujah house. The magazine journalist had ignored Bellavia's warning to wait outside.

Later, Bellavia's squad announced that he would receive a Distinguished Service Cross during a welcome-home ceremony to be held shortly after the 1st Infantry Division returned from Iraq to its then-headquarters in Germany. Without explanation, the announcement was withdrawn just before the event.

Bellavia left the Army soon afterward and couldn't find out the status of his nomination for the Medal of Honor. He got his answer a few months ago when a Silver Star arrived at his home via third-class mail.

"It was a terribly embarrassing process," he said.

Bellavia believes the nomination fell through the cracks after his company commander and executive officer were killed in combat and his division commander retired.

Now he is lobbying through the Vets for Freedom group for upgraded medals for some of his former Army mates.

"It's like pulling teeth to get these guys awards once they've left (the military)," he said. "We harass Congress, almost on a daily basis."

Differing standards for awards from one service to another is what most troubles West, the author.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Navy and Air Force have awarded 3,216 and 1,666 valor medals, respectively. These branches have only a few troops serving ground combat roles in the Iraq war.

"The Air Force and the Navy have no right distributing this proportion of awards for valor versus the Army and Marine Corps," West said.

The Army and Marine Corps, including their National Guard and Reserve components, have given out 5,452 and 3,379 valor awards above the level of achievement medal, respectively. They have taken the brunt of deaths and injuries during the current wars in the Middle East.

West advocates a permanent joint-services board to review valor awards and even out the disparities among the branches.

Carr said the Pentagon's review into how valor medals are awarded will be wide-ranging. He doesn't mind taking heat if it boosts service members' confidence in the integrity of the commendations.

"It's OK. Everybody's a stakeholder," Carr said. "If any members of the (military) think it can be done better, they should let us know."

Plenty of passionate veterans are prepared to do just that.

"I'm going to fall on my grenade to make this right," Bellavia said. "We've got enough garbage to deal with. Get this award stuff worked out."