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Gulf War Medals Stir Up Old Resentment : Military: Marines hope to avoid the Vietnam War-era awards system that favored officers over enlisted personnel. Officials also are wary of awarding too many medals.

August 19, 1991|RAY TESSLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Marine Corps is capping off the Gulf War, with its staggering military buildup but only four days of actual ground combat, with a massive new undertaking--giving out more than 5,000 medals.

Unlike during the Vietnam War, when officers were more commonly decorated for heroism and merit, this time the corps is determined not to neglect the deeds and sacrifices of young enlisted troops.

While most agree the awards system is fairer now, criticism remains that favoritism sometimes influences who gets medals--especially for meritorious service--that help bring status and promotions.

"The awards process now is a vast improvement over what we've had in the past," said Col. Joseph R. Holzbauer, a Vietnam veteran who is in charge of personnel and manpower for the 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton.

After reviewing award recommendations for the Gulf War, "there were no awards that were fabricated. The heroic acts were definitely heroic acts. There were no exaggerations, no quotas given," said Holzbauer.

However, some senior enlisted men still complain privately that the awards system, although better, is still flawed.

They say officers receive the higher medals for merit, cronyism plays a role in who gets merit awards, and that some commanding officers write such poorly worded recommendations for subordinates that the applications for well-deserved awards are rejected.

"There are people who are getting awards who don't deserve them," said an enlisted man with nearly 20 years service who spoke on condition of not being identified. "If they're in tight with the boss, they're going to get an award."

Even so, he and other career Marines expressed satisfaction the Marine Corps command is honoring more enlisted troops, and also rewarding Marines who stayed statewide but distinguished themselves in duties to support the war effort.

That change is largely because of Lt. Gen. Walter Boomer, who commanded the Marine forces against Iraq and unhappily remembers how the awards system in Vietnam was weighted in favor of officers over enlisted men.

In a recent comment to reporters, Boomer recalled: "It seemed to me almost impossible to have them recognized. . . . We're not forgetting the young Marines this time."

So far, 3,250 awards have been approved for Marines and about 2,000 more recommendations are being processed. About 90,000 Marines served in the Gulf War, including 21,000 from Camp Pendleton.

The number of awards may seem astonishing for a ground war that lasted only four days, but Marine Corps officials quickly explain that a relative handful of medals are being bestowed for bravery under fire.

Most of the citations are being awarded for what Holzbauer called "sustained superior performance," both during the ground war and the months of preparation.

The Marine Corps, like the other services, has a dozen different medals for heroism or meritorious achievement. There are numerous other service and campaign medals that are automatically given for being overseas or serving in a theater of war.

Decorations for bravery include, in order of precedence, the Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, Silver Star and Bronze Star. Awards for merit include the Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Navy Commendation Medal and Navy Achievement Medal.

To complicate matters, the Bronze Star, Navy Commendation Medal and Navy Achievement Medal can be given for either courage or merit. When these awards are given for valor, a small metal "V" is attached to the ribbon.

In addition, aviators can receive the Distinguished Flying Cross or the Air Medal. The Purple Heart Medal is given for wounds received in action against the enemy, or bestowed posthumously when someone is killed in action.

It appears the Marine Corps is keeping the promise to recognize its enlisted troops. Of the 3,250 medals granted to date, 56% have gone to the enlisted ranks and 44% to officers. (No such breakdown is available for the Vietnam War.)

So far, seven Silver Stars have been approved for Marines, five going to enlisted men and only two for officers, according to Marine Corps Headquarters in Washington. The 193 approved Bronze Stars include 109 to enlisted personnel and 84 to officers.

Fred Anthony, a retired Marine colonel who now directs the corps' awards programs, said commanding officers are trying to make fair judgments, based on guidelines, in deciding who gets medals.

"My perception is the commanders are trying to comply with the criteria evenly, as best they can, objectively, and not just hand out buckets of awards," Anthony said.

While the Marine Corps regards itself as strict and parsimonious in bestowing medals, many old-timers remember some past cases where they believe undeserved awards were given.

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