Medals, Discipline and True Valor: Should Past Discipline Limit the Recognition of Heroic Acts?

As a former British soldier, I’ve taken part in a few bemused discussions about what all those medal ribbons US soldiers wear are actually for. When I joined, it was common to see British Senior NCOs with a single ribbon, the green and purple of the General Service Medal that was awarded for time spent in Northern Ireland. If they’d managed to conceal all their assorted crimes for 15 years, they might have the Long Service and Good Conduct medal as well, although in the work hard/play hard culture of the 1980s Army those weren’t quite as common. Now, it’s more common to see three or four ribbons. I left the service with six; five of them were campaign medals and the last was awarded at the Queen’s golden jubilee.

Obviously, the US Army does things differently; awarding things like the Army Service Ribbon on completion of training. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that – it’s just a different approach to things, although it does lead to some amusing confusion. I’ve had US personnel assume I’d only been serving a couple of years because I was a corporal with five medals (a UK corporal is roughly equivalent to E-5, and I’d done operational tours in Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq as well as a stint in Belfast). Mostly it’s all harmless fun though.

AwardsFlicking through AR600, however, I’ve found something that strikes me as not so harmless. According to US Army regulations, if a soldier’s entire conduct hasn’t been rated “honourable,” they’re not eligible to receive any medals or awards – right down to them being graded overweight, although a general can issue a waiver for this. So if you tend to forget who you’re talking to after a few beers, or bar fights always seem to break out right beside you, your chances of ever winning an award for valor are pretty slim.

This is just not something I can agree with. Military history is full of colorful characters who had appalling disciplinary records but went on to perform acts of great heroism, which were then appropriately recognized. Sergeant Alvin C York won the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1918, but in 1917 he’d tried to avoid the draft by claiming he didn’t want to fight (despite being a notorious bar brawler). Colonel Blair “Paddy” Maynard, a founder member of the SAS, was an even worse bar brawler but repeated acts of bravery earned him four Distinguished Service Orders.

Heroism is heroism, and doesn’t become less meritorious because the hero in question has strayed from the path of righteousness in the past. If AR600 had been applied in 1918, Alvin York’s incredible bravery would have gone unrecognized, because he didn’t want to join the Army and tended to hit people when he’d had a few drinks. It’s worth noting that the exemplary conduct of Gefreiter A Hitler would have ensured he still got his Iron Cross. Disciplinary issues are no bar to a soldier rising above themselves to achieve remarkable things, and the awards system should recognize that by staying firmly separate from routine G1 issues. Military law has plenty of ways to deal with breaches of the regulations, but a childish refusal to give out well-earned medals shouldn’t be one of them.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Fergus Mason

Fergus Mason grew up in the west of Scotland. After attending university he spent 14 years in the British Army and served in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Iraq. Afterwards, he went to Afghanistan as a contractor, where he worked in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Camp Leatherneck. He now writes on a variety of topics including current affairs and military matters.
Fergus Mason

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2 thoughts on “Medals, Discipline and True Valor: Should Past Discipline Limit the Recognition of Heroic Acts?

  1. Noteworthy article that brings up some interesting facts and truths. As a prior reserve marine who was discharged with only the firewatch ribbon after 3 years of our unit complaining about the budget (3 weeks in Estonia was interesting), I think the there should be a discussion regarding the US ribbon and medal frenzy. While this article has validity in terms of people who served with valor despite between vilified, I think the author brought up a great point. Our need to have a fruit salad on our chest makes us look ridiculous in the larger scheme of things. The whole point of war is to win to prevent further attacks on our own people. I have heard of self serving staff NCOs that award themselves over the juniors who did the work, but I have first hand seen a junior marine impersonate an NCO going as far as to stitch rank and medals on dress blues. It’s horrendously ironic to see so many groups of vets rant and rave about civilians impersonating them when some of their very own committing the exact same act for the exact same reasons. It reminds me how laughable the juxtaposition between intangible qualities you supposedly exemplify by joining to the stark reality of how childish some of these people in uniform really are. To those who have sacrificed much, I thank you more than my words with ever convey. To those who impersonate, look into the eyes of Dakota Meyer when he receives his medal. That is an untold amount of anguish I don’t ever want to experience and no colorful decorative piece can rectify the damage already done.

  2. Very thoughtful piece Fergus. We used to call the Long Service and Good Conduct Medal the “Didn’t get Caught Medal”. During my time, we usually had to wait a couple of years after we were due, just so they could ensure that there was nothing in the pipeline that they might use against us. Needless to say, it made it all so worthwhile!

    Campaign ribbons and bravery awards should never be held to ransom. That said, I sometimes wonder when I see people wearing decorations when I know they never encountered an angry man, let alone saw any real action. I recall working with one fellow who ‘earned’ his Vietnam campaign ribbons from sitting on a transport ship in Saigon Harbour on a two day layover, and no, it was not during the Tet offensive! The thing is, he was genuinely proud that he got the ribbons for that amount of ‘combat’ service. Personally, I wouldn’t have bothered putting in for them.

    I always thought the GSM was kind of strange. It was awarded for a number of different campaigns, from Northern Ireland to Malaya. It was almost as if the powers that be just couldn’t be bothered making the effort to differentiate between different wars. As I recall, the only differentiation was in the clasps. So you could have fought in a number of different places in your career against a number of different enemies, and end wearing a single plain green and purple ribbon for all your efforts. Go figure!

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