Contact and Brawls: The Combat Action Ribbon

When the general public looks at a veteran, how can they tell that they’ve served in combat, short of asking them directly? The U.S. Army has the Combat Infantry and Combat Action Badge, the U.S. Air Force has the Combat Action Medal, but the focus of this article is on the award given to members of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps: the Combat Action Ribbon. Every marine and sailor knows the significance of having that ribbon on their rack. This coveted ribbon is awarded on the most stringent criteria and simultaneously is one of the most retroactively issued awards in the U.S. Armed Forces.

The Navy and Marine Corps Combat Action Ribbon

The Combat Action Ribbon (CAR) was established on February 17, 1969 by the Secretary of the Navy. The criteria set by the Department of the Navy requires bona fide evidence that the member was engaged in direct combat with an enemy. Not only does a person need to be in combat, but they must have acted satisfactorily, i.e. not surrender or disobey orders from commanding officers. The CAR is awarded normally to ground troops or sailors stationed on board ships, but not aircrews. The Navy and Marine Corps provides Strike and Flight Numbers on the Air Medal to denote combat operations, but some can still receive the CAR at the discretion of the Secretary of the Navy. [See Aerial Heroism article for more information about the Air Medal]

For an award like this, it was to be expected that many Navy and Marine Corps veterans would want to verify their eligibility. Initially the award was made retroactive to 1961 to accommodate those serving in Southeast Asia and other special operations around the globe. In October 1999, Public Law 105-65 shifted the retroactive date to 7 December 1941. This allowed for World War II and Korean War veteran to apply for and wear the CAR. But how does the Navy and Marine Corps determine entitlement during those conflicts. Fortunately for the veteran and the NPRC reference technician who researches the service record, massive ledgers and rubrics contain the movements and engagements of every ship and ground unit since World War II. Those are broken down further to specific locations and cross-referenced with a veteran’s service record. If they were attached to a unit or ship that saw combat in their time frame, they are eligible for the CAR. Since over four million sailors and Marines served in World War II and Korea, applications for the CAR are some of the most common requests among Navy and Marine Corps awards.

Where is the Coast Guard in all of this? Historically the Coast Guard followed the same pattern as the Navy, especially when it pertains to awards. Coast Guard members attached to units that saw combat were eligible to receive the CAR. It wasn’t until 2008 that the Department of Homeland Security created the Coast Guard CAR. The majority of CGCARs were issued during the Vietnam War when servicemembers served in the ‘brown water navy’ patrolling the Mekong Delta in South Vietnam.

The Coast Guard Combat Action Ribbon

As per an agreement between the NPRC and the service branches, the Department of the Navy verifies the service record information provided by the NPRC and determines whether or not an individual receives the CAR. If all the specific criteria are met, they receive it. However, as with many other awards, there can be some grey areas. Simply being in a theater of operations doesn’t ensure entitlement. Many Navy veterans from World War II who served in the Pacific qualify only if they participated in certain operations, such as the Battle of Leyte Gulf or the long island hopping campaign to the Japanese home islands. Details matter when it comes to the CAR. Veterans of combat deserve to be recognized for their actions and the CAR does just that.

Marine Corporal Eugene Sledge participated in some of the deadliest combat in the Pacific Theater of WWII, including Peleliu and Okinawa. The ribbons shown in above picture are before the creation of the CAR.
Marine Corporal Eugene Sledge’s ribbons with all retroactive awards showing, including the CAR first in the order of precedence.

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