Medals, Brightly-colored Ribbons, and Other Things

Bronze Star with "V" Device and Oak Leaf Clusters     

If the number of medals issued by the armed forces during the Vietnam War has ever been calculated, I have never read it, but it must have been a huge number. I have discussed the subject with other Wolfhound veterans of the war, and most of us agree it was a hit or miss proposition; it was the luck of the draw. If a company or battalion went immediately to new fighting in some other place, award recommendations were often forgotten. When leaders in the chain of command were killed in the subsequent fighting, there was usually no one to backtrack and check it out.

In one sense, randomness is a good thing. Each man who served as an infantryman in Vietnam combat recalls events as widely varying in terms of danger, in length of time, or in many other aspects. Just as there is no way to reduce the experiences to uniformity, there is no way to uniformly apply awards of valor. There are too many variables. By 1970, it had gotten out of hand. The Wolfhounds and other combat units were scrupulous in the matter of making awards to our soldiers who were killed in action. True, it was mainly a symbolic gesture, but the soldier’s last action often involved some act of courage on his part, so a medal for heroism at some level was often awarded posthumously, along with a Purple Heart. The Purple Heart does not need recommendations from anyone. Any combat wound caused by an enemy action authorizes the award. Treatment at the unit level called for a cardboard tag attached with strings by a medical aidman when the soldier was evacuated from the field. If the soldier was treated and remained on duty in the field, the cardboard tag was turned in through medical channels. Information on the tags determined if the award of the Purple Heart was authorized. If the injury was enemy-initiated, the medal was authorized; if the injury was a result of an accident or some other misfortune, it was not.

In the latter stages of the war, enemy-initiated wounds by fragments from rocket-propelled grenades (RPG) were probably the most common wounds. Many of them were not serious, involving no more than the medic picking out the fragments with tweezers, disinfecting the wound, and putting a bandage on it. Each time it happened, the man was eligible for a Purple Heart. The novelty soon wore off for many men, who began to think it was bad luck to continue getting the awards. In 1970, I recall one rifleman saying, “The only purple I want to see is when I smoke out of here,” referring to the recently-established tradition of popping a purple smoke canister when a man left the field for the last time to begin preparations for coming home.

By that year, I recall the battalion adjutant returning to the unit from brigade-level meetings, and using terms such as award “packages” and the like, meaning multiple awards for meritorious service at the end of the tour, to include medals and letters of appreciation. Such things were not important to lower-ranking men, particularly the draftees, but careerists appreciated them. There was nothing wrong with the practice. It was simply recognition of good and faithful service.

But as they increased in age after the war, many men who served in Vietnam became aware of the value of that service in terms of care by the Veterans Administration, and the growing awareness of the monetary value of VA disability ratings for war injuries. The transformation of what had been called “shell-shock” in World War I, World War II, and the Korean War had become identified as something called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Vietnam veterans. No examination of claims for wartime injury could escape the PTSD evaluation.

Some veterans of the war schooled each other on how to “act crazy” enough to turn PTSD claims into tax-free pensions. Some of them still show up at every public gathering of Wolfhounds. Such activities do no honor to our brothers in that war who died in battle. And the pensions boosted the size of the VA bureaucracy to include thousands of psychiatrists and PTSD therapists. Every VA medical center began to provide focus groups for the disorder. The activity also boosted the VA budget to astronomical levels compared to pre-Vietnam war levels. The worst thing about the manufactured PTSD claims was that they measurably decreased the ability of the VA to treat genuine war injuries.

The desire for war medals also took other turns. Sometimes soldiers who had served in bloody engagements in the Vietnam War perceived inequities in awarding medals. One such incident that took place in the Wolfhounds involved an award recommendation for a high decoration for a heroic medical aid man whose actions were never officially recognized by an individual decoration. Years ago, I looked into an elaborately-reported set of documents related to the events. Finally, I concluded that, while some of the documents were unquestionably genuine, others were probably forged many years after the fact by a disgruntled former soldier. I dropped my inquiries.

Schemes to cover up incompetence or poor leadership undoubtedly took place in the Vietnam from the lowest to the highest levels within the Army as well as the other services. Such activity is not honorable, and the soldiers, sailors, and airmen who risk their lives in combat deserve better. But simply dying in combat is not heroism. Unit valor is best represented by clear evidence of unit heroic action, not simply the heroic actions of individuals. Killing enemies or capturing equipment or occupying ground is not heroism. Heroism has nothing to do with numbers or quantitative measures. In their thirst for continued political power represented by votes, some American politicians have become involved in securing questionable awards for units and former soldiers. "Upgrading" of their own wartime decorations by political leaders who have never worn our country's uniform to achieve some ethnic or racial balance has soiled the idealism. When the definitive history of the Vietnam War is written at some point in the future, this latter activity will probably face some severe judgments among historians. Not all Americans appreciate the sacrifices made by those of us who go where they are sent to fight for our country’s interests abroad. Some Americans seem to believe that all of their activities abroad by U.S. military forces are done in the interest of an imperialism as selfish as that of ancient Rome. To be sure, they are not among our fellow citizens whose sons and daughters have been returned to them in flag-draped coffins. It is time that we called it quits on Vietnam war medals. It will not be long before all such individual awards will be posthumous. It is more important that the efforts should be spent on behalf of the Wolfhounds who wear the uniform today and risk their lives in heroic deeds abroad for our country.

Wolfhounds have written many proud pages in the history of our country. And our regiment continues to write these pages today. None of us need to embellish that proud record. Nec Aspera Terrent. Or in the words of our brothers who presently wear the uniform—No Fear!

Copyright 2011 by Howard Landon McAllister