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Published: 1 March 2009
Air & Space Power Journal - Spring 2009

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Medals for Mediocrity

How to Restore Meaning to Air Force Decorations

Lt Col Raymond M. Powell, USAF*

Ivividly remember my first medal. As a 20-year-old airman first class in 1987, I received the Joint Service Achievement Medal for winning the Defense Language Institute’s Commandant’s Award. Proud and excited, I knew that I’d accomplished something truly special. With my friends and family in attendance, I felt 10 feet tall. The occasion was a tremendous motivator. It was also the only time in my 22-year career I can recall being excited about receiving a medal.

That medal was special because I’d earned it the hard way—by outperforming my peers on a difficult, year-long language course. Completely unexpected, it was exceptional because it was the exception.

Unfortunately, for most of us at most times, medals have become rather unexceptional and commonplace. We get them at the end of each tour, and we know what we’ll receive because the written and unwritten rules tell us. Enlisted people value them primarily for their promotion points, but officers barely notice them—unless, of course, we don’t receive one that we believe we’re entitled to.

This chagrin over medals that pass us by frequently happens when the proliferation of decorations becomes too much for its overseers and a dramatic pullback occurs. Such was my experience following my 90-day squadron command in Iraq, after which a new regime initiated a crackdown on excessive medals and canceled the one my boss had submitted for me. I was disappointed, not because the medal was particularly special but because I’d expected it—in fact, I’m embarrassed to say that I felt somewhat entitled to it. After all, most people had gotten it for doing what I did.

Even more revealing is the case of one of my top noncommissioned officers (NCO) during my most recent command assignment. After voluntarily spending two years on a remote assignment and performing with extraordinary distinction under austere conditions, he found that the approval authority had denied his end-of-tour medal. The rationale? That he’d recently received a medal for outstanding achievement under the previous regime and that another would be one too many. The message came through clearly: we cannot reward outstanding achievement without significant risk to end-of-tour recognition.

This type of thinking produces a grotesque effect. Too many medals mean excessive promotion points under the Weighted Airman Promotion System (WAPS). Therefore, medals based on achievement and meritorious service become mutually exclusive, so that we protect the end-of-tour decoration received by most individuals at the cost of rewarding the exceptional performers. In effect, we pass by excellence to guarantee rewarding the mediocre with the usual.

Thus the system fails to meet its objectives and, in the process, becomes a bloated, labor-intensive, impersonal bureaucracy. Squadron commanders have no authority to grant even the most basic medals. In most organizations, processing a medal takes not only months but also untold reviews by disinterested administrators who make minor changes and pronounce judgments—often ill informed. Meanwhile, frustrated subadministrators clamor for simplified rule sets from the upper echelons so they can anticipate changes. In this way, we fashion the cookie cutter and expunge all original or personal references that might make the citation truly special.

Let me state clearly at this point my belief that people who operate as cogs in the great administrative wheel are generally great Americans, devoted to their work and trying to do their best for all concerned. I’ve served as a cog in this wheel myself. But the wheel is broken and needs redesigning.

Let’s start over and consider the purpose of what we’re trying to do. Our decorations program must meet the objectives of celebrating outstanding performance in a timely fashion, with a minimum of administrative workload. We can do so fairly simply, I believe, by applying methods and principles we’ve already tested in other personnel-related endeavors. We can begin by pushing power down to the lowest level.

Because squadron commanders routinely make far more consequential decisions than selecting who receives a Commendation Medal, we can certainly trust them to make that determination as well. However, our present attempts to control medal proliferation prevent us from allowing them to do so. But we can regulate that process in other ways, such as a simple quota system similar to the one we use routinely for other personnel purposes. Let me illustrate.

Suppose we gave each commander a quota of, for example, 10 percent of members eligible to receive Air Force Commendation Medals per year. In order to keep things in balance, we would need to limit such eligibility so that a rank-heavy squadron wouldn’t have a disproportionate share of medals appropriate for its smaller number of junior personnel. We would calculate the allocation annually, rounding down to the nearest whole number and aggregating the remainder up to the next echelon, much the same as we do for many promotion formulae. We could derive a similar formula for Achievement Medals. Meanwhile, the much smaller number of higher-level medals should continue to retain the scrutiny and prestige of more senior endorsement.

Under such a system, the commander would own the process and therefore take pains to make sure that only top achievers received medals. Then troops would recognize them as something truly exceptional. Removing two echelons of review and approval would dramatically reduce processing time and workload.

When the commander wants to go above the squadron’s allotment, he or she can appeal the case to the group commander, who would then select the appropriate time for dipping into the aggregate to reward personnel who truly distinguish themselves. This process, of course, continues to the higher echelons as well.

Of course, some persons may object to quotas, arguing that a deserving Airman might miss out on a medal because the unit has expended its allotment—a possible situation but not really new. For example, we have unit quotas for officer-promotion recommendations and enlisted Stripes for Exceptional Performers. In the larger sense, in fact, every promotion board has quotas. There’s no such thing as a perfect system, but at least quotas provide us with a well-understood construct under which to operate.

Enforcing quotas and empowering squadron commanders would have the effect of doing away with today’s virtually automatic end-of-tour medals. This practice long ago devolved to the point that such medals essentially became farewell gifts, perversely meaning more to those denied them than to those receiving them. The time for this obscene practice to end has long since passed.

We should handle separation and retirement medals differently, however, granting them with “100 percent opportunity” according to a published rank chart (e.g., Commendation Medals for E-6 or O-3 and below, Meritorious Service Medals for senior NCOs and field-grade officers, etc.). The wing commander would approve exceptions to this basic rule.

The new system would work equally well for the expeditionary force. Deployed squadron commanders spend an inordinate amount of time processing and reprocessing medals for further processing and eventual approval under the watch of a distant, overtasked office at Shaw AFB, South Carolina. The procedure has to begin around the halfway point of a 120-day deployment, just to ensure completion before all the supervisors depart. It doesn’t conclude until long after the troops and even the commander have left the scene. The results are predictably labor intensive, arbitrary, and delayed. Oh, as to the “pin ’em where you win ’em” goal of awarding a medal prior to an Airman’s departure? It’s simply impossible under this system.

Instead, what if the commander could dip into the squadron’s quota, producing and presenting medals to his or her outstanding performers before they depart? The medals would be meaningful and timely, and the flood of decorations inundating Ninth Air Force would slow to a trickle.

Clearly, there are details to work out and discuss. For example, we need to carefully examine points awarded under the WAPS to ensure that things don’t fall out of balance with the variety of other medals having point value. We must factor in the value of end-of-tour medals presented by joint organizations and defense agencies to the new formula, perhaps requiring exceptions for extraordinary circumstances. Moreover, we should dissuade commanders from unnecessarily holding medals until the end of the fiscal year. Such are the details to consider and work out during the course of producing new policy.

Still, the basic principles should hold: we must push down the authority to grant medals, eliminate end-of-tour decorations, and avoid unnecessary administrative steps. All of this change would require a huge cultural shift and, no doubt, would prove difficult to absorb at first. But success would bring great rewards. Air Force medals would once again recognize excellence, and the associated administrative overhead would plummet—truly an “outstanding achievement.”

Washington, DC

*The author currently serves as a Joint Staff action officer at the Pentagon.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University

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