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Marines Recognize New Kind of Fighting

Standards for awarding Combat Action Ribbons are revised to honor those who come under fire from roadside bombs and mortars.

July 24, 2006|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — To the outside world, it may seem but a bit of brightly colored ribbon. But to Marines, the Combat Action Ribbon is greatly prized as proof they were in the fight, rather than in the rear with the gear.

"It's a badge of honor," said attorney Paul Geitner, a former Marine. "A Marine can wear it on his chest, and he doesn't have to say a thing. The ribbon says it all."

The rules for awarding the ribbon, which also can be given to sailors and Coast Guard personnel, were written in an era when war meant firefights -- unlike the Iraqi insurgency, which employs roadside bombs and mortars and hides among civilians.

So the commandant of the Marine Corps has changed the standards for awarding the Combat Action Ribbon. Troops who "render satisfactory performance under enemy fire" can receive the ribbon, even if no shots are fired in response.

"Iraq, Afghanistan and the global war on terror represent a new type of battlefield," said Lt. Gen. John Sattler, commanding general of the Camp Pendleton-based 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.

Changing the criteria, he said, gives the Combat Action Ribbon "greater relevance" for the kind of warfare Marines are confronting now.

Sattler, who commanded Marines during the battle for Fallouja in late 2004, had asked Commandant Gen. Michael Hagee to review the Combat Action Ribbon.

"Marines were leaving [Iraq] after having participated in combat action and were not eligible because the criteria did not recognize the type of the threats we're seeing," said Lt. Col. Jim Taylor, leader of the Marine Corps' military awards section.

The first notice of the change came in March. Hagee announced the final rules, approved by the secretary of the Navy, late last month. Officers have until Jan. 1 to request that the ribbon be awarded to their troops retroactively.

So far, 85 Marines who previously had been rejected have received the Combat Action Ribbon under the new rules. The 85 were selected from 3,400 cases first submitted before the rule change.

In his June 25 message, Hagee said the improvised explosive devices used by insurgents were "the primary reason" for broadening the eligibility criteria.

IEDs have accounted for 40% of U.S. fatalities in Iraq since January 2004. As the U.S. mission has shifted from combat to the training of Iraqi forces, the percentage of fatalities in 2006 attributable to IEDs is 56%, according to one study.

The Combat Action Ribbon -- with its blue, gold and red stripes -- was created in 1969, during the Vietnam War. In 1999 the award was made retroactive for people who served in World War II and Korea.

Coast Guard personnel are eligible when working under Navy direction.

In his message to Marines, the commandant said that although the criteria for earning the Combat Action Ribbon had changed, the aggressive virtues the award was meant to recognize had not.

Hagee ended his message with a common Marine parting: "Keep attacking."

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