Directing War from the Executive Branch: A Review of ‘White House Warriors’ by John Gans

Let’s be blunt: warfare changes constantly. Weapons alone don’t change, but so do the intangible aspects; political pressure, foreign policy, and public opinion. The head of state or government has a body of advisors debating the merits of military intervention and national security. Over time, these advisors have evolved to reflect the social mores and political climate both nationally and internationally. The world became increasingly complex following the Second World War with the rise of Communism as a world power, European colonies achieving independence, and the dawn of nuclear power. Previous conventions on isolationism were no longer applicable. Under the Truman Administration, a council made up of foreign policy and military experts congregated to form the first version of what would become the U.S. National Security Council. The 1947 National Security Act formalized its existence and for the past 70 years, the NSC has guided the White House on making monumental decisions on handling foreign threats and maintaining U.S. hegemony during the Cold War and beyond.

John Gans’ book, White House Warriors, analyzes the history and political impact of the NSC, plus the central characters who have dominated the council. In tandem with this work, Gans draws comparisons between the nature of the NSC and global affairs that have necessitated military intervention. The progression of the Cold War and accompanying proxy wars within have shaped the NSC’s people and policies. White House Warriors delivers a stark picture of how the Executive Branch extends its power on foreign affairs through the State Department and military position with the backing of the Joint Chiefs and Secretary of Defense. The reader could interpret Gans’ work in multiple ways as a result. Has the NSC exponentially increased the President’s power to use military force without Congress? Does the National Security Advisor have too much power? Should the NSC be dismantled? These questions and more can be asked by you and have been by policy experts, Congress, Chief-of-Staffs, and the President themselves.

President Truman meeting with his National Security Council (Harry S. Truman Presidential Library)

The American-Soviet alliance collapsed in the aftermath of WWII and executive policy on Communism couldn’t be controlled by the State Department. The late President Franklin Roosevelt exhibited a hands-on, yet discombobulated approach for directing the war effort which predictably was a source of consternation for the War Department. In an effort to consolidate national security matters in line with foreign policy, the NSC was formed under the National Security Act of 1947, along with the Department of Defense. Gans writes that in the beginning, personality clashes and vague jurisdiction lines between the military and state were a bane of daily function. Advisors and detailed military staff officers came and went so quickly, some didn’t even bother to learn names unless they sat in meetings with the President. Both Truman and Eisenhower only partially consulted the NSC during the Korean War, but they were largely treated as a secondary appendage because final decisions were made by the President or the Joint Chiefs.

To say that the Cold War molded NSC practice is a massive understatement. Political and diplomatic landscapes were in severe flux. What that meant was flexible responses by the Executive branch needed to be considered. John F. Kennedy’s NSC instigated the leap from haphazard consulting to critical infrastructure. The ‘bright young men’ were indicative of Kennedy’s plan to combat Communism by all necessary means, including military action. Without going to Congress for funding or having debates with his Cabinet, Kennedy molded the NSC to reflect the best minds who could give the best argument supporting the President’s views. Early U.S. involvement in Vietnam was a crucial test for the NSC since it challenged conventional military thinking and required a combined approach of diplomatic, political, and military action. Its during the Vietnam period, Gans notes the rising influence of the singular National Security Adviser. The head of the NSC was an executive secretary, but that role morphed into the advisor we see today. As the war effort and increasing government bureaucracy strained organization and communication efforts, the Advisor’s duty was to be the principal aide to the President on national security matters and direct the NSC on policy meetings. Under Henry Kissinger’s six year tenure, the role of advisor was augmented into a fixed position that sought to bring bureaucracy under control and handle principle matters solely by one person. The council had transformed from a collaborative body to an advisor with an army of staffers.

President Nixon’s first meeting with his National Security Council, Principle advisor, Henry Kissinger, is seated at the foot of the table on the left (National Archives and Records Administration, Nixon White House Photographs, 1/20/1969 – 8/9/1974)

Between the Ford and Reagan Administrations, the NSC underwent more organizational shuffling and reprioritized focus from the Soviet Union to the Middle East. Terrorist attacks, kidnappings, and attacks on US embassies were prevalent. However, for much of the 1970s and 1980s, the NSC and the Department of Defense dealt with what was coined ‘Vietnam syndrome’. There was great reluctance from many in the military, State Department, and the Joint Chiefs to commit ground troops in another international incident following the debacle of the Vietnam War. Instead, emphasis was placed on shuttle diplomacy and finding ways to subvert enemy activity, but not directly engage them in conventional combat. This was an eye-opening section in Gans’ book as it illustrates how many of the policies we implemented in the Middle East today stem from many of the NSC’s decisions in the 1980s. The Iran-Contra scandal tarnished the NSC and forced them into another organizational restructuring. Gans’ final section focuses on the ongoing War on Terror and how the NSC still faces many of the same challenges that existed since the Vietnam War. In many ways both conflicts were categorized as insurgencies, but U.S. military establishments wanted to reject that label in Iraq and Afghanistan, for fear of conjuring up old Vietnam wounds. Gans examines the deployment and transition of US forces in the Middle East and the implications for national security when the insurgency escalated.

President Ronald Reagan Holds a National Security Council Meeting on The Twa Hijacking in The White House Situation Room, 6/16/1985 (National Archives and Records Administration, Reagan White House Photographs, 1/20/1981 – 1/20/1989

In the end, White House Warriors is provocative and enlightening by showing how the council fluctuates nearly as much as the presidency itself. High stakes decisions on national security are made nearly every day, but decisions are not made by the President alone. The body of advisors to the President is massive and they take time to deliberate on the best possible course of action. The NSC has the power to change the course of conflicts, but they navigate through public opinion as much as the President does. Not every military intervention is cut and dry like the Gulf War or Bosnian War and NSC staffers incorporate countless facets of a scenario that can seem unending. Despite these obstacles, the NSC still serves a vital function to the U.S. and the world in assessing threats to peace and global stability.

Eternal Remembrance: National Cemeteries for the U.S. Armed Forces

A calm breeze carries through wide, green, rolling hills. Blades of grass slightly bend as the fallen leaves rustle about on the ground. A handful swirl about, settling against a granite headstone and obscuring the epitaph. The words read: ‘Unknown – U.S. Soldier’ stamped in the shield relief. Stepping back from the marker, what comes into view is an entire field of unknown soldiers. They are not alone however. They are in the company of others who served honorably in the armed forces.

Unknown Soldier – this epitaph is used to denote service members who could not be properly identified after their death. The most notable use of the title is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery

The United States has an elaborate burial system for veterans and their families. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), National Cemetery System, Arlington National Cemetery, the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmens’ Cemetery, the American Battle Monuments Commission, and various cemeteries under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service all comprise the different methods for interring deceased service members. During the American Civil War as private cemeteries were unable to accommodate the increasing number of Union dead, Congress passed legislation authorizing the creation of national cemeteries. Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs, who lost his son Lt. John Meigs, was pivotal in choosing locations. What resulted was arguably the most famous cemetery in the world. Robert E. Lee’s home, Arlington House, was occupied by the Union within weeks of the war’s opening. Generals used the mansion as a headquarters for three years and in June 1864, Meigs ordered the burial of soldiers in the Arlington grounds. Meigs heavily resented Lee joining the Confederacy and historians argue there were political motivations for establishing a cemetery on his property. Union soldiers were buried and monuments were erected in later years, rendering the mansion unlivable. The government originally purchased the land in an estate sale due to delinquent property taxes, but the Lee family argued that the tax sale was improper. In the 1882 Supreme Court case, United States vs. Lee, the court ruled in favor of the Lees and returned the grounds. The victory was short-lived however since the family never occupied the house again and sold the property back to the government for a large sum. Today, Arlington National Cemetery is maintained solely by the U.S. Army, along with the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Cemetery.

Veterans and their spouses are entitled to be buried in a national cemetery. Depending on the current regulations, spouses can choose to have a separate headstone or have their epitaph etched on the rear of the veteran’s marker.

Following both world wars, the VA worked diligently to implement an administrative system that oversaw the maintenance of military cemeteries. In 1973, administration of military cemeteries passed from the Department of Defense to the VA and they established the National Cemetery System. The NCS comprises of 147 military cemeteries, with 131 under the jurisdiction of the Veterans Administration. Another 14 of these are controlled by the National Park Service (the majority of which are battlefields). While the most famous is Arlington; Jefferson Barracks, Fayetteville, Fort Leavenworth, Quantico, and the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific all protect the remains of our deceased veterans. Veterans can interred at any active location (active defined as functioning and eligible for burials meeting environmental standards). Sites under the jurisdiction of the NPS are typically connected to Revolutionary War, Civil War, and Indian War battlefields and are preserved for historical purposes. These include ones like Gettysburg, Andersonville, Little Bighorn, and Yorktown. Modern veterans are not buried at these sites dues to environmental damage that affected any historical preservation efforts.

The above marker is the current style for military interments. Older headstones that have fallen into disrepair or destroyed by vandalism are replaced with this design.

U.S. service members are buried not only in the continental U.S., but overseas as well. The American Battle Monuments Commission administers and operates military cemeteries in countries like France, Belgium, Philippines, Italy, Luxembourg, and Panama. This independent government agency is responsible for maintaining overseas cemeteries and their activities such as wreath, remembrance, and memorial ceremonies. A handful were established as temporary cemeteries during wartime (i.e. Normandy), but many were converted into permanent locations through partnerships with the host country. The AMBC administers these sites, but the physical territory remains under the jurisdiction of the host country.

A military marker is simplistic and straightforward in design and function. The Department of Veterans Affairs confirms the name, date of birth, date of death, final rank at discharge, service branch, wartime service period, and personal awards. A religious designation symbol is placed at the top (if space allows, a personal description is allowed at the family’s request)

So how does a veteran become eligible for burial in a military cemetery? The basic criteria stipulates that a veteran must not have received a bad character of service discharge and provide the required paperwork (DD Form 214, Notice of Separation). A veteran who is killed while on active duty, especially in combat, are guaranteed a burial. National Guard and Reserve members must meet time-specific requirements or been mobilized at any point. What disqualifies a veteran from a military burial would be any of the following:

  1. Other than honorable discharge and lower; i.e. bad conduct or dishonorable.
  2. Convicted of capital crimes (murder, rape, child pornography, terrorism, etc.)
  3. Convicted of sex crimes
  4. Engaged in subversive activities against the United States
  5. Enlisted but never served (referred to as an Uncharacterized Entry Level Separation)

For more information on military burials, visit the VA Burials and Memorials Page.

These cemeteries are solemn, sacred places. Their symbolic value lies in with the soldiers who died serving the nation and are remembered for their deeds. As President Abraham Lincoln stated in his Gettysburg Address:

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

These cemeteries and the memorials built to honor the past and living memory of the deceased and the conflicts are in many ways immortal. People can come and go, but the names are etched, stamped, and emblazoned for eternity in hallowed grounds around the world.

Aerial Heroism: The History of the Air Medal

The 1949 film ‘Twelve O’Clock High‘ portrays a fictionalized 8th Air Force bomber crew fighting over Europe. Their hard-luck outfit suffered immensely from relentless attacks by the Luftwaffe, but slowly they regain their courage and complete a dangerous mission when other squadrons are called back. Their story, coupled with real-life counterparts, illustrates the heroic achievement and valor accompanying the brutal air war. Beginning in 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt, Congress, and the War Department created several new awards and decorations for the U.S. Armed Forces. These were meant not only to recognize service in the theaters of operation, but for heroic achievement, valor, gallantry, and meritorious service. One personal award has undergone several changes since its creation in World War II; the Air Medal.

Michael J. Novosel: Medal of Honor recipient who completed over 12,400 flying hours, 2,038 combat hours, and was awarded the Air Medal a record number of sixty-four times

Established on May 11, 1942 under Executive Order 9158, the Air Medal was created with the stated purpose:

“…to any person who, while serving in any capacity in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard of the United States subsequent to September 8, 1939, distinguishes, or has distinguished, himself by meritorious achievement while participating in an aerial flight.”

Executive Order 9158, May 11, 1942

The Air Medal (AM) criteria was slightly different from an earlier award honoring aerial service, the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). Candidates needed to complete a set number of operations under certain flight conditions. If they were exposed to enemy fire, the AM would be awarded more frequently. During the war, commanders occasionally altered these criteria to fit the conditions of the theater. European air space was deemed especially dangerous and under complete enemy control, while the Pacific theater was not. Therefore theoretically, an air crewman could receive more AMs and DFCs in Europe because of the assessed danger. At one point, a ‘score card’ system was in place to track the number of engagements and corresponding heroic achievements in order to differentiate between awarding the AM or DFC. This practice ended in August 1943 when the Army Air Force Headquarters ordered a re-evaluation of AM and DFC criteria. The number of flying hours alone was not an accurate determination and commanders needed to take into account the dangerous nature of operations also. The DFC was ordained as the higher award based on its distinction of recognizing aerial heroism above the call of duty. This re-organization did not diminish the AM’s significance though as it continues to recognize significant individual achievement and meritorious service in the air.

My grandfather’s Air Medal with a Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster, circa 1945

In the tradition of awards and decorations of the Armed Forces, each service branch used similar appurtenances on the medals and ribbons (i.e. oak leaf clusters, service stars, etc.) but in later years and between different branches, awarding the AM evolved into a complex process. Between 1942 and 1968, the Army used oak leaf clusters (OLC) but were replaced with numerals to show additional awards. Nowadays when veterans request replacement medals and the AM is in their record, the Army retroactively applies numerals and not OLCs. Let’s see an example:

A Korean War veteran received the Air Medal along with 4 OLCs; if he were to request it today, it would be issued as an Air Medal with a numeral 5. When awards are shown in a record, the numeral is always the same as the total number of awards. As with others, the medal itself is always the first award. Need some help? Well….

Air Medal with Numeral 5

Let’s do some (long drumroll) MATH!

AM w/1 OLC = AM with Numeral 2

AM w/16 OLC = Am with Numeral 17

AM (6th award) = AM with Numeral 6

AM w/14 OLC & V = AM with Numeral 15 and “V” device

AM w/1 SOLC & 1 BOLC = AM with Numeral 7

Moving onto the U.S. Air Force, oak leaf clusters have been used since the branch’s establishment. This was to recognize aerial achievements rather than the number of missions. Combat duties, operations, and support missions are central in assessing these achievements. Interesting enough, the “V” device wasn’t authorized for the Air Force until October 21, 2004. The addition of the device was not retroactive however; only from that date onward can Air Force service members receive the device. This was done to recognize heroism in combat flight, but are not eligible for the Distinguished Flying Cross.

All the preceding information sounds easy when compared to how the AM is issued by the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. Numerals are preferred over OLCs and the “V” device has been worn since the 1970s. What sets the USN and USMC apart is AMs are awarded for individual action and ‘Strike/Flight’ by participating in aerial and combat operations. What does that mean? Strikes are missions (sorties) that directly engage the enemy, such as:

  1. Firing ordnance against the enemy, i.e. long range bombing
  2. Delivering or evacuating personnel
  3. Combat sorties that encounter enemy opposition

Flights are sorties that do not encounter enemy opposition. Search and rescue operations fall under this category since they are operating, but not against an enemy. Strike/Flight are also indicated by numerals as in the example shown below:

Image courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps Uniform Regulation Code

Here we see the arrangement of award issuance, strike/flight, and the “V” device for a USN/USMC medal. The service member received the award twice, was cited for valor, and participated in 38 strike/flight sorties. The number is not broken down into combat and non-combat missions; they are counted together. A veteran would have to request their service record and their unit records to determine the nature of each operation.

But wait, there’s more! Members of the U.S. Coast Guard can receive the AM under similar criteria as the U.S. Air Force. Aerial achievement and meritorious service are recognized and the “V” device is given only if the USCG member actively engages enemy combatants. The kicker for this service branch however is that they don’t use any of the previously listed appurtenances. Instead of OLCs or numerals, they use gold and silver stars to indicate multiple awards; silver for each one after the first and the gold representing five or more.

Why do the Armed Forces do things differently with these medals if they’re all used the same way? Answers to that have evolved in tandem with the evolution of the U.S. military. While minute details for criteria determining flights, strike, meritorious service, and heroism have changed, the spirit of the Air Medal has not. Thrusting oneself into the skies and facing the prospect of never returning to the runway is a frightening thought. Pilots and crews fly away and never come back. Their bodies vanish into the sea or burn up as the plane plummets to the ground. Perhaps this is why President Roosevelt created the Air Medal: citing those who propel themselves into the air and become heroes.

Semper Paratus: Requesting U.S. Coast Guard Medals (Special Edition)

When you ask someone ‘what branches make up the U.S. Armed Forces?’ they’ll typically answer ‘Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines’ but one that they’ll routinely forget is the U.S. Coast Guard. Indeed the Coast Guard is a service branch of the Armed Forces, but it can be overlooked occasionally. However, the U.S. Coast Guard has been in existence since the country’s founding and was championed by a notable Founding Father: Alexander Hamilton. A coastal defense and maritime law enforcement branch was personal for Hamilton, stretching back to his early days in the Caribbean when he worked for a shipping firm. Pirate raids and privateers were a constant nuisance for merchant vessels so creating a service designed specifically for coastal defense and law enforcement at sea was critical. Originally, named the Revenue-Marine, it became the Revenue Cutter Service, and following a merger with the U.S. Life Saving Service under the 1915 Coast Guard Act, the modern U.S. Coast Guard was born.

Seal of the United States Revenue Cutter Service (image courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard)

If you’ve read the preceding articles about awards and decorations for the Armed Forces, it was numbered to focus on the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. So why is this post about the Coast Guard labeled ‘special edition’? Concerning awards and medals, the Coast Guard has a special distinction that none of the other service branches can claim: only one Coast Guard service member was awarded the Medal of Honor and no member has received the second-highest medal, the Coast Guard Cross. We’ll go over those in a bit!

Requesting Coast Guard awards and decorations works similarly to the Navy and Marine Corps process outlined in the previous post (Meritorious Service).  The veteran’s Official Military Personnel Folder is reviewed by a technician at the National Personnel Records Center and then forwarded to the service branch personnel center. For the Coast Guard, this would be the Commander, Personnel Service Center in Washington D.C. There is however one important caveat to note with the Coast Guard: records are not cross-checked with lists of ship unit awards or combat actions. The technician only completes a medals request with those awards expressly noted in the service record. If a veteran believes they are entitled to an award that is not listed in their record, that request is forwarded to the service branch for verification.

Now onto the two great distinctions for the Coast Guard! During wartime, the Coast Guard transfers personnel and operations to the Department of the Navy. This has only been performed twice, during World War I and World War II by presidential order. During peacetime, the Coast Guard is under the authority of the Department of Homeland Security (before that it was the Department of Transportation, and prior to that it was the Department of the Treasury). Coast Guard members are eligible to receive Navy medals, but beginning in the late 1940s, Congress established Coast Guard versions of Navy medals to make them eligible for those service members:

  1. The Coast Guard Distinguished Service Medal: equivalent to the Navy, Air Force, and Army Distinguished Service Medal
  2. Coast Guard Medal: equivalent to the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, Army’s Soldier’s Medal, and the Airman’s Medal
  3. Commendation and Achievement medals were also established and based on existing versions of the aforementioned awards.
  4. The Lifesaving Medal is the oldest award within the Coast Guard that is still active. The medal (divided into two awards, the Gold and Silver Lifesaving Medal) is given to those rescuing people from dangerous waters. The medal was created in 1874 and the higher of the two, the Gold Medal, has only been awarded about 600 times. Technically it is not considered a military decoration and can be awarded to the public also.

On October 15 2010, Congress passed Public Law 111-281 establishing the Coast Guard Cross. The newest award was created equivalent to the Navy Cross and is given to service members who perform extraordinary acts of heroism that do not merit the Medal of Honor. The award is meant to acknowledge those distinguishing acts while serving in only a Coast Guard capacity. Despite the award being nearly 10 years old, the Coast Guard Cross has never been awarded. Not even once.

The Coast Guard Cross. The reverse side of the medal reads ‘For Valor’  (image courtesy of the U.S. Army Institute of Heraldry)

Onto the second distinction! During the Second Battle of Matanikau in the Guadalcanal Campaign of World War II, Signalman 1st Class Douglas Albert Munro used his Higgins landing craft to shield Marines that were redeploying under heavy fire from the Japanese. Leading up to the battle, Munro and his shipmate Raymond Evans were stationed at Naval Operating Base Cactus conducting support operations for the Navy and Marine Corps. On September 27, 1942, the Marines were ordered to attack Japanese positions on the Matanikau River and Munro was placed in charge of landing craft and Higgins boats sending Marines to their positions. While ferrying injured Marines back and forth, the Marines at Matanikau faced a counter-offensive and were in danger of being overrun. Munro quickly returned to the beach and laid suppressing fire on the enemy while Marines boarded the landing  craft and waited until all were secure. A couple of the landing crafts became stuck on sandbars near the beach and Munro directed other boats to move in and pick up any remaining Marines. It was at this moment that Munro was shot in the head. Evans held  Munro as he was dying and before he finally died, Munro asked if all the Marines made it out safely and smiled when Evans nodded yes.

News of Munro’s heroism reached back to the United States. Munro was immediately awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor presented to his family at the White House by President Franklin Roosevelt. The citation reads:

“For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous gallantry in action above and beyond the call of duty as Officer-in-Charge of a group of Higgins boats, engaged in the evacuation of a Battalion of Marines trapped by enemy Japanese forces at Point Cruz, Guadalcanal, on September 27, 1942. After making preliminary plans for the evacuation of nearly 500 beleaguered Marines, Munro, under constant risk of his life, daringly led five of his small craft toward the shore. As he closed the beach, he signaled the others to land, and then in order to draw the enemy’s fire and protect the heavily loaded boats, he valiantly placed his craft with its two small guns as a shield between the beachhead and the Japanese. When the perilous task of evacuation was nearly completed, Munro was killed by enemy fire, but his crew, two of whom were wounded, carried on until the last boat had loaded and cleared the beach. By his outstanding leadership, expert planning, and dauntless devotion to duty, he and his courageous comrades undoubtedly saved the lives of many who otherwise would have perished. He gallantly gave up his life in defense of his country.”

-Medal of Honor Citation for Signalman 1st Class Douglas Albert Munro

Munro’s name has been memorialized in Coast Guard vessels, facilities, monuments, VFW Posts, scholarships, and as of today is the only non-Marine to be listed in the National Museum of the Marine Corps’ Wall of Heroes. Memorial observances are held at the Coast Guard Training Center at Cape May annually with new recruits.

Douglas A. Munro Covers the Withdrawal of the 7th Marines at Guadalcanal, (1989) by Bernard D’Andrea

The U.S. Coast Guard has an incredible history and reading material about the early days of the Revenue-Marine, Revenue Cutter Service, and the U.S. Life Saving Service is extensive. For more information about the Coast Guard and its award and decorations, visit the Coast Guard’s Personnel Services Division.

Meritorious Service: Requesting U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Medals (4 of 4)

The history of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps is incredibly dense and overflowing with heroic stories of men battling the elements, fighting enemies in exotic locales, and being ready to deploy anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice. Towering ships like the USS Constitution, USS Missouri, USS Arizona, and the USS Hornet were at the center of momentous historical events that defined generations and military tradition. An illustrious history can even be heard in the Marines’ Hymn:

“From the Halls of Montezuma
To the shores of Tripoli;
We fight our country’s battles
In the air, on land, and sea;
First to fight for right and freedom
And to keep our honor clean;
We are proud to claim the title
Of United States Marine”

(The ‘Halls of Montezuma’ refers to the Battle of Chapultepec in the Mexican-American War and the ‘shores of Tripoli’ refers to the Battle of Derne in the First Barbary War). The Continental Congress quickly established both the Navy and Marine Corps during  the American Revolution to counter the British Navy, which was the largest in the world during the 18th century. Since the early 1800s, the Navy and Marine Corps were engaged in conflicts throughout the world. Despite their operations during the War of 1812, American Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and many other global conflicts, Navy and Marine Corps awards and decorations were established primarily after World War I and World War II.

The USS Constitution battling the HMS Guerriere in the War of 1812. The USS Constitution’s victory earned it the nickname ‘Old Ironsides’ (image courtesy of the U.S. Naval Historical Center)

The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps share a special distinction in the U.S. Armed Forces and other uniformed services: their medals are shared and awarded to both members of each branch. What many people don’t realize is that the Marine Corps is under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Navy (and the U.S. Navy is within the same department of course). On June 30, 1834, the Marines were combined with the Navy following an Act of Congress; ‘Act for the Better Organization of the Marine Corps‘:

“…That the said corps shall, at all times, be subject to, and under the laws and regulations which are, or may hereafter be, established for the better government of the Navy, except when detached for service with the Army, by order of the President of the United States.”

-An Act for the better organization of the Marine Corps, Statute I, Chapter CXXXII, Sec 2, Twenty-Third Congress, June 30, 1834

Although the Navy and Marine Corps share the same medals, a substantial amount of research is performed to verify awards and decorations requests. This is due to the fact that geographic assignments and time served on ships plays a significant part in determining awards. Naval ships earn what are called Battle Efficiency Awards that are given for best battle efficiency competition and overall readiness for naval operations. A common request that Navy veterans make are for ship awards they believe are eligible for; if they served on the ship when it received that award though. A number of retroactive awards, especially for WWII and Korea, are available too through recent general orders from the Department of the Navy.

Let’s look at some unique medals and awards issued by the Department of the Navy:

  1. Navy Cross: second highest award for valor in combat, equal to the Distinguished Service Cross and the Air Force Cross
  2. Navy and Marine Corps Medal: awarded for non-combat heroism equal to the Soldier’s Medal and the Airman’s Medal
  3. Navy / Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal: awarded to active duty personnel who landed in foreign territory and engaged the enemy
  4. Combat Action Ribbon: awarded to sea service members who engaged in ground or surface combat against the enemy. *This is the most commonly requested award for both service branches*
  5. Sea Service Deployment Ribbon: awarded to those serving active duty onboard a vessel at sea. *Established in 1980, it is only retroactive to August 15, 1974 so any requests for the SSDR before that date are denied*
  6. Navy E Ribbon: awarded for battle efficiency competitions for readiness and overall preparedness for that vessel and crew

The Navy and Marine Corps also issue Achievement and Commendation awards as mentioned previously in the preceding articles. Appurtenances like service stars, oak leaves, and numerals are also used along with another one called the Fleet Marine Force Combat Operations Insignia. This is issued to U.S. Navy sailors attached to Marine Corps units engaged in combat operations. Both branches also have a system of weapon marksmanship awards for different weapon types.

The 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines landing at Da Nang. They were the first US ground combat troops to land in Vietnam on March 8, 1965 (photo courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps History Division)

As any technician at the National Personnel Records Center will tell you, fulfilling requests for Navy and Marine Corps awards is a labor intensive process. This is because of the numerous resources that technicians use to cross-check where a service member was located, at what time, with what unit or vessel, and length of time overseas or deployed on a ship. Individual personnel records may not completely reflect the award history of a vessel so they are checked against a massive ledger of all ship and unit awards garnered by that vessel. For World War II, Korea, and Vietnam veterans in particular, this is combined with their eligibility for foreign awards if (and this is a big IF) they were assigned to ships that were in the sovereign waters of a country where combat actions occurred. Ledgers for Presidential, Meritorious, and Navy Unit Commendations are extensive because they track every deployment and combat action of each vessel. The same goes for the Marine Corps; their deployments and attachments to specific units and ships are heavily reviewed to see whether or not they’re eligible for awards also. Additionally, combat air wings with the Navy and Marine Corps are also separated with their awards determination. A naval combat air wing can receive an award, but the aircraft carrier transporting them doesn’t necessarily receive the same. This unit stratification is important to remember when Navy and Marine Corps veterans request their medals. If you weren’t attached to a unit or ship that received an award for being in a specific time or place, then you wouldn’t be considered eligible.

Before delving into the finer details of the Navy and Marine Corps awards themselves, it’s imperative to look at the request process as well. Similar to the Army and Air Force, requests are made through the NPRC and information is verified through the personnel folder. The Navy and Marine Corps also use a form similar to the Air Force’s NA 13059 entitled a NAVPERS 1650/96 ‘Transmittal of and/or entitlement to Awards’. Replacements are also only issued once like the Air Force and so copies of this form are put in the record and then sent to the service branch office. The Navy Personnel Command in Millington, Tennessee is responsible for the verification and replacement of Navy and Marine Corps awards.

The U.S. Navy light aircraft carrier USS Princeton (CVL-23) burning soon after she was hit by a Japanese bomb while operating off the Philippines on October 24, 1944 (Photo courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command)

A large number of requests for Navy and Marine Corps medals comes from World War II veterans and their families. This time period requires a significant amount of research because ships, combat air wings, and Marine Corps units attached to naval units all have a multiple lists and information to verify. Veterans who served in the Pacific Theater are eligible for awards like the Philippines Presidential Unit Citation, Combat Action Ribbons, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, Navy Occupation Medal, and the China Service Medal (given for service in waters near China between 2 September 1946 and 1 April 1957). Once a technician confirms the veteran’s on-board service, that is cross checked against that ship’s unit award history and if nothing is found, that request is complete! The same process is repeated for Korea and Vietnam veterans.

Marine Corps award requests are examined in nearly the same manner. A master list of every Marine Corps unit since the Korean War shows their unit awards, combat actions, and corresponding time frames to prove eligibility. When Marine Corps units are attached with other units that receive awards, the aforementioned Marine Corp unit receives the same unit award. Again, time and place makes a major difference in determining awards eligibility. One final, yet important disclaimer I should add here is that the NPRC only processes awards requests for veterans how have their records at the record center. Beginning in the mid-1990s, the Navy and Marine Corps began digitizing and retaining their own service records.

Let’s look at an example! Assume that all the supporting documentation exists for the veteran’s request for all entitled medals and awards:

  1. Enlisted in the U.S. Navy on January 5, 1943
  2. Served on the USS Denver from 1 October 1944 to 30 November 1945
  3. Stationed in Japan following surrender in September 1945

Here’s what we’ve got! From left to right, top to bottom:

  1. Combat Action Ribbon: participated in combat against the enemy during the Battle of Leyte Gulf
  2. Navy Unit Commendation: received for serving on board the USS Denver during the Battle of Leyte Gulf
  3. Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with bronze service star: service in the Pacific Theater
  4. World War II Victory Medal: active duty between 7 December 1941 to 31 December 1946
  5. Navy Occupation Medal: stationed in occupied Axis country, Japan
  6. Philippine Presidential Unit Citation: meritorious service in the Pacific Theater and actions in the Philippines
  7. Philippine Liberation Medal: participated in the liberation of the Philippine Islands from Japanese forces

Now let’s look at a Marine Corps example. Again, assume that all the supporting documentation exists in the personnel folder:

  1. Enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps on 10 June 1964
  2. Served in Vietnam with the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines from 30 August 1965 to 15 November 1966
  3. Participated in Operation Prairie and Deckhouse
  4. Wounded once in combat
  5. Received a commendation for heroic acts

Here’s what we’ve got! From left to right, top to bottom:

  1. Purple Heart: sustaining wounds during combat
  2. Navy and Marine Corps Commendation: for heroic acts performed during combat operations
  3. Combat Action Ribbon: participated in combat operations against the enemy
  4. National Defense Service Medal: for active duty service during a conflict
  5. Vietnam Service Medal with one bronze service star: received for serving in the Republic of Vietnam
  6. Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Unit Palm Citation: received the foreign unit award for being attached to the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines while serving in Vietnam
  7. Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with 1960 device: foreign award for serving in Vietnam

These examples are not meant to be 100% accurate, but they are to give a general conception of what typical awards are eligible for Navy and Marine Corps veterans. For more information on Navy and Marine Corps awards and decorations, you can visit the Navy Personnel Command website here: Navy Personnel Command.

I hope this article series on U.S. Armed Forces awards and decorations has been informative and helpful! You can also visit the National Personnel Records Center website to begin the request process for medals (NPRC website). Happy researching!

For Heroic Acts: Requesting U.S. Air Force Medals (3 of 4)

The U.S. Air Force is the youngest service branch of the U.S. Armed Forces (I know there’s the Space Force, but that’s a story for another day and as of right now, they’re just using the same medals as the Air Force). Prior to the Cold War, aerial warfare was part of the Army with the sub-branches of the Army Air Corps and the Army Air Force. The National Security Act of 1947 established the U.S. Air Force as a separate branch and on September 18, 1947 the Air Force became independent and began its own operations and forming commands.

Gen. Merrill McPeak, former Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force. Gen. McPeak served as a fighter pilot in Vietnam and oversaw Air Force operations during the Gulf War (photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force)

During the Air Forces’ early years, they borrowed heavily from the Army’s list of awards and decorations. It wasn’t uncommon for a Air Force veteran that served during the Korean War to be awarded the Army Good Conduct Medal. Following the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Air Force began drafting its own award system and designing the decorations. More awards were established during and after the Vietnam War and with the creation of the Space Force, proposals for new awards have been issued too. Ribbons and medals made especially for the Air Force include, but are not limited to the Air Force Cross, Airman’s Medal, AF Longevity Service Ribbon,  AF Training Ribbon, AF Special Duty Ribbon, and the Aerial Achievement Medal. While the Air Force does not issue extensive marksmanship badges as the Army does with all the different weapon bars, they do issue ribbons that indicate proficiency with small arms and receive appurtenances for multiple awards. The Air Force does issue a wide arrange of badges that cover everything from pilot wings, to flight surgeons, and to one of the most coveted, the astronaut badge.

Army and Air Force awards are varied in their qualifications and design, but it doesn’t end there. How Air Force medals requests are processed is different too. In the previous post on Army Medals (For Distinguishing Service), an Army veteran just needs to submit a request through the National Personnel Records Center, a technician submits the pertinent information to the Army TACOM, who re-issues the medals; a process that be done multiple times. The process for Air Force veterans is marginally different and here’s why:

  • The U.S. Air Force allows a one-time submission for the re-issuance of awards and decorations. When requested, this cannot be repeated by another party in the future

The F-16 Fighting Falcon jet fighter. The F-16 is famous for having multiple variants and was the primary USAF fighter jet used during the Gulf War and is still in operation today (Photo courtesy of the USAF)

NPRC technicians submit Army medals information directly to the Army via online through TACOM which generates an immediate request number for veterans to follow-up on later. For Air Force medals, technicians complete an NA Form 13059 ‘Transmittal of And/Or Entitlement to Awards‘. The form is a long list of every medal, ribbon, and decoration issued by the Air Force and a technicians checks off boxes corresponding to the veteran’s entitled award.  Unit awards are also included and technicians compare OMPFs to these lists, similar to the Army unit awards. The completed form is copied three times:

  1. First copy is placed inside the Official Military Personnel Folder to show that the awards have been issued previously
  2. Second copy is mailed to the requester
  3. Third copy is forwarded to the Air Force Personnel Center, located at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, TX

Awards and decorations come directly from the AFPC, not the NPRC. Once they have the NA Form 13059, it remains in their queue until completed. The Air Force keeps this document to ensure that the medals are only re-issued once. Depending on the nature of the request (wanting replacements, petitioning for a new medal, etc.) sometimes the process can take months or even years; it all depends on the AFPC’s priorities.

Award eligibility is slightly different between the Air Force and Army too. What are automatic awards for one branch are reciprocal for the other. A signature example is the Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Unit Palm Citation. This foreign award was retroactively awarded to all Army veterans, but not to the Air Force. Only those who were awarded the medal while serving in Vietnam can request it again. Air Force veterans that served in Vietnam do automatically receive the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with 1960 device for service in country.

Let’s look at some examples of Air Force medals! Assume that for the following scenarios that the veteran has the supporting documentation in their record:

  1. Served in Vietnam from 2 April 1968 to 22 February 1969
  2. Qualified expert marksman for the M-16
  3. Enlisted on 30 March 1967 and discharged on 15 September 1971
  4. Served in the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing throughout Vietnam tour

From left to right, top to bottom: Air Force Outstanding Unit Award (AFOUA), National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with three bronze service stars, Air Force Longevity Service Award (AFLSA), Small Arm Expert Marksmanship Ribbon (SAEMR), Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with 1960 device (for educational purposes only)

  • Veteran received the AFOUA because he served with the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing which received the award while stationed in Vietnam
  • The VSM with three stars and the RVN Campaign w/1960 device because he served in Vietnam in that time frame
  • Veteran doesn’t receive the Cross of Gallantry because it’s not an automatic unit award and was not awarded to the 37th Tactical Wing
  • Received the AFLSA for at least 4 years of honorable service in the branch
  • Received the SAEMR for being qualified with the M-16

That was pretty easy! Now let’s do a more difficult one. Again, assume the veteran has all the supporting documentation:

  1. Served in both Operation Desert Shield and Operation Enduring Freedom
  2. Enlisted on 7 June 1989 and discharged on 6 June 2009
  3. Received all good conduct marks throughout service
  4. Qualified expert marksman with the M-16
  5. Completed 10 combat missions with the 455th Air Expeditionary Group stationed at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan
  6. Cited for valor in combat against the enemy, worthy of the Air Force Cross

From left to right, top to bottom: Air Force Cross, AF Combat Action Medal, Meritorious Unit Award with bronze oak leaf cluster, AF Good Conduct Medal with silver and bronze oak leaf cluster, National Defense Service Medal with bronze service star, Southwest Asia Service Medal with bronze service star, Afghanistan Campaign Medal with two bronze service stars, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal (GWOTSM), Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal (GWOTEM), AF Overseas Long Tour Ribbon, AF Longevity Ribbon with oak leaf clusters, Small Arms Expert Marksmanship Ribbon, Air Force Training Ribbon.

  • Received the Air Force Cross following in record citation
  • Participated in aerial combat after 2007 so eligible for the AF Combat Action Medal (retroactive to 11 September 2001)
  • Received the Meritorious Unit Award twice while serving with the 455th Air Expeditionary Group (awarded twice when stationed in Afghanistan)
  • Received appurtenances with the Good Conduct Medal for multiple years of good marks and performance
  • The National Defense Service Medal has a bronze service star because the veteran served in two conflicts (Gulf War, War on Terror)
  • Received the Southwest Asia Service Medal and Afghanistan Campaign medal for participating in Desert Shield and Enduring Freedom
  • Received the GWOTSM and GWOTEM for service overseas during the Global War on Terror
  • Overseas Long Ribbon for completing more than two years overseas
  • Completed 20 years of service so veteran received AFLSA with oak leaves
  • AF Training Ribbon for completing basic military training

On top of all these awards, because there’s documentation that he’s a combat pilot, he gets a pilot’s badge above the ribbon rack:

USAF Pilot Badge

I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading about U.S. Air Force awards and decorations! For my next installment, I’ll have a combined U.S. Navy / Marine Corps article as they share nearly all of the same types of medals. Additionally, the Navy and Marine Corps have a huge array of retroactive award policies, specific rules on automatic and unit awards, and awards for naval ships and vessels too. Even though the share many of the same medals, there are a couple of tiny differences between the Navy and Marine Corps, but we’ll go through it all!