The system for military awards is broken. We have become closefisted with the top valor medals to the point of being miserly, even as we reduce other awards—like the Bronze Star for service, which is basically given to anyone who holds high rank in a combat zone—to meaninglessness through proliferation. These shortcomings and other problems with the military awards system will likely be addressed later this year in a comprehensive review ordered by Secretary of Defense Hagel, himself the recipient of two Purple Hearts.
Back in 2005, when I received my own award, my pride was tinged by a sense of the capricious system that had chosen me and not others. Ribbon pinned on my chest, I could read respect in some of my buddies’ faces, and jealousy in others. It’s a tough thing to be singled out and even tougher to be passed over. But the prevailing emotion that day, even among us awardees, was a bemused sense of boredom, restlessness and insatiability. Compared to where we had just been, what we had so recently done, all the pomp and circumstance seemed ingratiatingly trivial.
Besides, we had all spent enough time in the army to know how the awards system really worked. In equal parts bureaucracy and meritocracy, our chances of receiving a medal—and not just the select few awards for valor but any old medal—depended as much on the willingness of our superior officers to advocate on our behalf as it did on any objective measure of merit.