U.S. Navy Awards

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The United States Navy has a long, rich history stretching back through the centuries to October 13, 1775, which is the day our Second Continental Congress officially created it. Of course, historians and sailors alike often split the Navy’s history into two parts: the Old Navy and the New Navy, which most agree began in the 1880s. In addition to the divide between the use of ironclads and extensive modernization efforts, there’s the fact that the Continental Navy was actually disbanded after the Revolutionary War only to be brought back permanently by the Naval Act of 1794, which was passed by then-President John Adams in response to serious threats of piracy. Today, following in the footsteps of such American heroes as John Paul Jones, the U.S. Navy is the undisputed dominant naval superpower on a global level.

In the Navy’s countless hours of battle, which have covered not only the sea but land and air, more acts of valor and stunning courage have taken place than could possibly be listed. Some of those moments, such as the combined horror and strength of Operation Red Wings, are widely known on a public level, while others, such as the travesty of Extortion 17, have garnered little to no public attention. There are also those moments known mostly only to military history buffs, including the backstories to such famous quotes as Captain John Paul Jones’ “I have not yet begun to fight!” and Admiral David Glasgow Farragut’s “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” One thing all these moments have in common is uncommon valor; if there’s a single character trait found in the hearts of this nation’s greatest sailors, it’s a staggering level of valor. In recognition of centuries of heroism, the U.S. Navy has created quite a few medals and awards, and today we’re going to take a look at two.

Navy Cross

Navy CrossAs the second-highest decoration given for valor in our nation’s military, the Navy Cross simply cannot be ignored. It was first created as part of our country’s entering World War I, approved by an Act of Congress on February 4, 1919, and first awarded in 1937. The Navy Cross can be awarded to a member of the Navy, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard, and to date has been awarded nearly 7,000 times. It’s also worth noting it is equivalent to the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross as well as the Air Force’s Air Force Cross. According to the Department of Defense, it’s given only in cases of extraordinary heroism “while engaged in action against an enemy of the United States; while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force; or while serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not the belligerent party.”

When it comes to wear, the Navy Cross has actually changed its position over the years. It used to be the third-highest award for valor back when the Navy Distinguished Service Medal was the second, but after Congress passed a revision changing precedence on August 7, 1942, it became second itself. As the second highest award, it’s worn after the Medal of Honor, should one be present, and ahead of all others. A single Navy Cross is awarded at first, and after the first award, any subsequent awards are denoted with 5/16” gold and silver stars which are affixed to the original medal’s suspension and ribbon. The current practice is to award a gold star for the second through fifth awards, and if a sixth award was to take place, they would be replaced with a silver star. However, to date there haven’t been any recipients of more than five awards.

The Navy Cross has changed its appearance in subtle ways over the years. In its first decade the centered white stripe was narrower, and in 1941-42 medals were referred to as “Black Widow” awards due to their being darker as the result of an over-anodized finish. The face of the Navy Cross is a cross pattee, which is a square cross often with narrower arms at its center that flare towards the outside. Interestingly, the cross pattee can be traced to medieval times, having been present on a treasure binding Queen Theodelinda gifted to the Monza Cathedral in 628 and also etched onto the front of an 8th century text currently stored at the Morgan Library in New York. Placed at the re-entrant of each arm of the cross are clusters of four laurel leaves and berries, while in the medal’s center a ship atop waves is depicted facing to the viewer’s left. The ship itself is symbolic; it’s a caravel, which was a 15th century Portuguese sailing ship significant for its place in the age of discovery. The laurel leaves and berries represent achievement while the caravel is frequently used by the Naval Academy and is meant to represent the service and the sea both. On the reverse of the medal pre-1850 crossed anchors with cables are centered along with the letters USN. The medal hangs from a navy blue service ribbon with a vertical, centered white stripe which matches the suspension ribbon. Navy blue is, of course, representative of the naval service while white is meant to stand for the purity of selflessness.

Although there are many notable recipients of the Navy Cross and, indeed, each and every one of the almost 7,000 service members who have received it have displayed amazing personal fortitude and have also made staggering sacrifices, one in particular does come to mind for our era: Gunner’s Mate Second Class (SEAL) Danny Phillip Dietz. As part of the aforementioned Operation Red Wings, Dietz has gained significant renown posthumously, but it is his life that is to be celebrated, because Danny Dietz was a SEAL of what can only be described as phenomenal valor.

Dietz was born on January 26, 1980, enlisted in the Navy immediately after high school, and smoothly gained admission to BUD/S right after completing Gunner’s Mate “A” School. He graduated with Class 232 in 2001, was assigned to SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team 2 as the secondary SDV pilot for Task Unit Bravo, and was also the Ordnance and Engineering Department head. It was April of 2005 when he deployed to Afghanistan, and within two months his moment of truth would come on a shale-strewn mountainside near Asadabad.

The story of Operation Red Wings is fairly well known today. On June 28, 2005, SEAL Team 10 went on a mission in the wilds of the Hindu Kush with the purpose of laying eyes on a Taliban leader known to be responsible for the deaths of American service members. He was inserted onto that mountainside along with Michael Murphy, Matthew Axelson, and Marcus Luttrell. When the team was “stumbled upon” by a small group of goat herders, they were faced with a choice made impossible by the Rules of Engagement: let them go, knowing full well it could be a set-up or, at the very least, that the goat herders would report back to the Taliban, or kill them, a response which could easily set off an international incident thanks to both the standing and wartime ROE and mainstream media, resulting in their being literally prosecuted and vilified in print. It was a lose-lose scenario, and while the only survivor, Marcus Luttrell, has made it clear what he’d do could he go back to that day, the men made the best decision they could given the information at hand. They let the goat herders go, and it wasn’t long before all hell broke loose.

Luttrell relays the account of Dietz’s bravery in a way that cannot be replicated; after all, he was there. After the four SEALs were ambushed by the Taliban, wounded, shot at, and forced to fling themselves down the side of the mountain, Dietz was apparently the first to be shot in battle.

From Lone Survivor:

“But then Danny was shot again. Right through the neck, and he went down beside me. He dropped his rifle and slumped to the ground. I reached down to grab him and drag him closer to the rock face, but he managed to clamber to his feet, trying to tell me he was okay even though he’d been shot four times. Danny couldn’t speak now, but he wouldn’t give in. He propped himself against a rock for cover and opened fire against the Taliban, signaling he might need a new magazine as his very lifeblood poured out of him. I just stood there for a moment, helplessly, fighting back my tears, witnessing a brand of valor I had never before been privileged to see.” (Chapter 7, page 223)

Danny Dietz fought with mind-blowing ferocity despite being shot repeatedly, and he did so not only because he was fighting for himself but because he was battling for the lives of his brothers. In fact, as a battle-hardened warrior, he undoubtedly knew his chances of survival were slim to none, and yet he refused to give in. The battle raged on, and Danny Dietz roared along with it. Even when Dietz was shot again, even when Luttrell was dragging him backwards in an attempt to reach cover, the valiant SEAL kept firing his rifle, refusing to let go. When Danny Dietz was struck by the final, fatal bullet, he died in Marcus Luttrell’s arms, and he died a true American hero.

SEAL Danny Dietz was awarded the Navy Cross posthumously on September 13, 2006.

From the official citation:

“By his undaunted courage in the face of heavy enemy fire, and absolute devotion to his teammates, Petty Officer Dietz will long be remembered for the role he played in the Global War on Terrorism. Petty Officer Dietz’ courageous and selfless heroism, exceptional professional skill, and utmost devotion to duty reflected great credit upon him and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for the cause of freedom.”

Prisoner of War Medal

This may seem an unlikely medal to discuss, and it’s certainly young from a historical standpoint, having been signed into law on November 8, 1985, by then-President Ronald Reagan. Officially it’s awarded for “being taken prisoner and held captive while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States; while engaged in military operations involving conflict against an opposing foreign force; while serving with friendly forces engaged in an armed conflict in which the United States is not a belligerent; or under circumstances not covered by [the 1985 statute] but which the Secretary concerned finds were comparable to those circumstances under which persons have generally been held captive by enemy armed forces during periods of armed conflict.”

POW MedalThe POW medal is bronze and circular, and on its face, or obverse, side, there is a bald eagle with its wings raised. Barbed wire and bayonets circle the eagle. On the reverse the words “awarded to” are inscribed at the top with “for honorable service while a prisoner of war” inscribed midway down its back. Between the two inscriptions, a space is left so the full name of the recipient can be added. The shield from the United States Coat of Arms is depicted at the base with the words “United States of America” underneath. The medal’s ribbon is black in the middle with thick white stripes on either side and blue, white, and red pinstripes in that order from the inside out. The black of the widest stripe signifies the bleakness of imprisonment while the red, white, and blue represent our nation’s flag and the thicker white stripes beside the black are meant to represent hope.

While it is impossible to honor just one POW due to the courage displayed by them all, it’s absolutely worth noting a moment in history that prove the internal fires of our men while they’ve suffered captivity. Rear Admiral Jeremiah Denton, who was a Commander at the time of his imprisonment, was held as a POW by the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) for eight years starting in 1965. Denton is most well-known for the moment in 1966 when the NVA attempted to force him to participate in a televised press conference. Although the NVA intended to force him to regurgitate propaganda, Denton showed remarkable composure and forethought despite the brutality and terror of his first year in captivity by communicating a message in Morse Code by blinking his eyelids. The word he repeatedly spelled was “torture.” When Denton was questioned by the NVA regarding his support for the Vietnam War, he said “I don’t know what is happening, but whatever the position of my government is, I support it fully.” Denton was released in 1973, ended up becoming a U.S. Senator, and was awarded not only the POW Medal but the Navy Cross, among others.

While there are many awards and medals in the U.S. Navy, there will never truly be enough to match the courageous acts of our sailors. The slogan of the ship USS Carl Vinson says it best: Vis per mare; strength from the sea. They burn with a fire no foreign fighter can match. They fight “not for self, but for country.”

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.

Katherine Ainsworth

Katherine is a military and political journalist with a reputation for hard-hitting, no-holds-barred articles. Her career as a writer has immersed her in the military lifestyle and given her unique insights into the various branches of service. She is a firearms aficionado and has years of experience as a K9 SAR handler, and has volunteered with multiple support-our-troops charities for more than a decade. Katherine is passionate about military issues and feels supporting service members should be the top priority for all Americans. Her areas of expertise include the military, politics, history, firearms and canine issues.
Katherine Ainsworth
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