This post previously appeared on Patreon, but given the subject, I wanted to share it with everyone. Enjoy!!
When I was a kindergartener, my Grandpa Ray came with me to school to talk about his service in the Marine Corps. I remember beaming as I held the case for his Purple Heart and showed the contents to my classmates. This happened to occur during Operation Desert Storm and in continuing with the military kick my class was running, we sent letters and care packages to a soldier who was deployed to Kuwait.
It didn’t occur to me until much later in my life how big an impact these early exposures to the military had in my life. But then again, military service was never far from my life. Let’s begin with four generations. Four generations of military service. My great grandfather Plum served in WWI. I don’t know much about him, aside from a single photograph I’ve seen taken in his uniform. Then, came my Grandpa Ray. Ever still the Marine staff sergeant. He survived Pearl Harbor aboard the USS Tennessee, deployed later to the Marshall Islands, and then after moving to the reserves, Grandpa did a tour in Korea. To say that he was an example of the toughness embedded into the military would be a gross understatement. Grandpa gave me hair cuts for as long as I can remember, including taking me to get my first hair cut at his favorite barber shop. If I visited his house with my hair too long, down to the basement ‘barber shop’ we went. He also walked me to school on my first day of kindergarten and taught me to fish.
Following my Grandpa Ray came my Pop, which was what I called my maternal grandfather. He served in the 50’s in the Army; did a tour in Ethiopia. He told me many stories about taking a Thompson machine gun and a 1911 to go hunting there in country. I don’t recall the animals he brought back, but I do remember him having a gay ‘ol time shooting a 1911 at seagulls on the beach. Like me visiting Iraq, I saw in my Pop a man who observed how much better ordinary life was back in the US compared to Ethiopia, and this is a man who had nine sisters and two brothers; he knew what it meant to share space.
My Grandpa William (Grandpa Bill to us) also served in the Army, but I don’t know much about his service. More to come on that.
Next came my Uncle Dan, who did stints in the Active Air Force and the Air Guard in the late 70’s through the early 80’s. I really don’t know a whole lot about his time in service, other than a nasty knee injury he received. Like me, he’s spent time submitting claims for his injuries and hoping the VA would get on the ball a bit. I sense in him a lot of me: hard working and decent, someone who’s not afraid to call out things as he sees them.
And coming in last but not least is the asshat writing this, having served two tours in Iraq and my brother Andrew, who recently finished six years as a nuclear machinist mate in the Navy.
But back to Grandpa. The medals he received in WWII and Korea were hung in a special place down in his basement, I remember feeling the raised head of General Washington between my fingers as I held his Purple Heart (he actually received two; one came much later.) It wasn’t until almost a full twenty years later that I understood the particulars of getting a Purple Heart and how significant it was that my Grandpa earned one and lived to tell the tale.
This brings me to yesterday. I don’t call my grandparents nearly often enough, but I did yesterday. I do my best to keep Grandma apprised of my health. I chatted with Grandma like usual: how’s everyone doing on both sides of the phone, share with her how her great grandsons are refusing to cease growing like weeds, and so forth. I then got on the phone with Grandpa. Grandpa is a pretty brief talker, so usually a solid two to three minutes and we’re all caught up. But last night, he asked me something about my service that had really upset him. Something I’d considered many times, but never discussed outloud with him.
Grandpa asked me if a rumor he heard was true. He asked if servicemembers were receiving medals for no reason. And well…it’s absolutely true. Awards like the Bronze Star were not given lightly back in Grandpa’s day, mostly going to men who had already been killed in action; not exactly an award seeking demographic. Now, in today’s Army (and to a certain extent the other branches) awards are given for all manner of things, but most awards received are not for bravery or valor. You get a medal for so many years of service. You get a medal for every deployment, generally regardless of what you did there. I’m not trying to be glib about it; they really give them out sometimes for nothing. The senior leadership of my MP company (E7 and above) all received Bronze Stars for their deployment to Iraq. E6 and below received Army Commendation medals. Now, those senior leaders may have worked incredibly hard on that deployment, but does that mean that their rubber stamp award for 15 months in Iraq should equal what my grandfather received for valor in WWII?
I’ve seen a few videos and articles about how award hungry today’s military has become, being more focused on good evaluations and not necessarily doing the job well or even correctly. Part of this debate is lost in the semanics of award giving, but I think for a group of institutions which supposedly value history and honor, a honest look at how they dole out awards needs to be considered. I don’t think all military awards are bad and certainly there are many deeds committed by servicemembers worthy of praise and admiration. But when the admiration goes to the shiny trickets that you wear on your chest rather than the actions that gave you said trinket in the first place, it’s time to write a new rule book.
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