February 1, 2007  

A betrayal of our heritage

The awards process is broken

The Defense Department last year initiated a comprehensive review of how military awards and decorations are awarded. With our nation at war, it is particularly important that our services appropriately and effectively recognize the myriad acts of valor and gallantry with which our fighting men and women are distinguishing themselves. Not only is it crucial that appropriate criteria are clearly established and followed in determining the level of a combat-related award, but there must be a level playing field established among the services, so that comparable acts are rewarded consistently and similarly. For these reasons, the Defense Department review is appropriate.

Unfortunately, there are problems with the awards system — at least in the Navy and Marine Corps, and I strongly suspect in the other branches as well — that are more fundamental and insidious, and that ultimately threaten the integrity of the awards process. If we can’t administer the awards process fairly and consistently in peacetime, we threaten its validity for wartime — now and in generations to come. Conversations with senior officers and enlisted leaders alike have largely confirmed my own observations and concerns: The guidelines that exist for the administration of the awards process are not being followed.

Currently, guidance for the awards process in the Navy and Marine Corps can be found in SECNAVINST 1650.1G. Regrettably, however, the awards process, as outlined by the manual, is routinely disregarded. Whatever the reasons — carelessness, laziness, expediency — the sad state of the awards process in general should greatly concern us all.

What does the manual actually say about the awards process in general? Chapter 1 offers this introduction: “Awards are important symbols of public recognition for rewarding extraordinary heroism, exceptionally meritorious service, or outstanding achievement and other acts or services which are above and beyond that normally expected and which distinguish an individual or unit among those performing similar acts or services.”

In reality, the awards process is no longer reserved to recognize extraordinary or noteworthy achievement, but is also used to validate satisfactory performance of one’s job. This is especially true in the officer community, where the now ubiquitous “end of tour award” has become the expectation, rather than the exception.

Personnel should be rewarded for their performance in carrying out their duties by the evaluation process. Excellent performance should get excellent comments and excellent marks. The vast majority of personnel perform their duties with professionalism and expertise. Enlisted evaluations and officer fitness reports are the means by which this performance should be reflected and rewarded.

An award for performance of assigned duties should be an asterisk, an exclamation point to the evaluation saying, in effect, not only did this individual do his job well, it was done in such a way that it stands out above most others. In reality, however, an end of tour award has become another box in the check-out process. But if everyone gets an award at the end of his tour, how do we recognize those who truly stand out?

In recent years, the “end of tour award” has become such standard terminology in the Navy’s lexicon that it must clearly be defined in the instructions, right? Well, uh, no. In fact, what the manual says about the subject is this: “A routine end of tour (EOT) award is not an integral part of the awards system.”

To be fair, it should be pointed out that the manual itself is ambiguous. For one thing, if the term “end of tour” award is supposed to be the exception, rather than the rule, why does it get its own acronym? More significant, however, is the previous paragraph, where the manual says: “Recognition of sustained superior performance is accorded an individual at the termination of the period during which that person demonstrated that performance, such as at the end of the assigned tour of duty.”

So basically, the manual says that the end of a person’s tour is a good time to recognize him for sustained superior performance, but then says that such recognition should not be a routine occurrence. The intent of the manual, however, seems clear: An award given for sustained superior performance of one’s duties should be the exception, rather than the rule. “Superior” is a relative term, meaning “higher than another.” By definition, only a small minority of performances can be judged “superior.” Consequently, only a small percentage of personnel should be awarded for “superior performance.”

Three examples, each drawn from actual situations involving officers, offer insight into how far from the intent of the manual the awards process has strayed. (Because enlisted personnel receive points toward promotion for awards, there may be some inherent differences in the way the process is applied between officers and enlisted personnel. I cannot say whether the awards process has deteriorated to the same extent among enlisted awards as it apparently has among officers.) These are not isolated incidents, but rather reflect a systemic trend away from conscientious adherence to the guidance established by the manual.

Example 1: Do it yourself

An O-3 department head is within a couple weeks of detaching from her ship. While walking down the passageway one afternoon, a yeoman first class from administration approaches her and says in passing, “Oh, ma’am, by the way, if you want to get an award, you need to get the package in to me right away.” At no other point is the topic of an award addressed with the officer by anyone up or down the chain of command.

We might call this example, “If you want an award, write it up yourself,” and it raises a critical question: Since when has it become the responsibility of a service member to recommend herself for an award? Not only does this incident demonstrate that an end of tour award for officers has become expected, but it reveals the extent to which awards have become the responsibility of the one receiving the award. This is the exact opposite of the way the process is supposed to work. The awards system is specifically and explicitly intended to be a means by which an individual’s performance is recognized by that person’s superiors. It is not intended to be a means by which an officer highlights his own performance. To ask an individual to prepare her own awards package is an insult and demonstrates a conspicuous failure of leadership and supervision.

One point of clarification: There is nothing wrong with asking an individual to provide the command with some bullet points summarizing his performance and accomplishments. But it plainly is the responsibility of the command to initiate the process, based upon observations of noteworthy and exceptional performance.

Additionally, only the command is in the position to gauge the impact of an individual’s actions on a larger scale. This is an integral part of the awards process. The criteria for specific awards include measuring the scope of the impact of an individual’s actions. Only the command has the perspective necessary to determine whether an individual’s performance was noteworthy enough to justify an award, and the extent to which those noteworthy achievements affected the command, the mission and the Navy. It is the command’s responsibility to initiate the awards process and fairly judge the appropriate level of the award.

Example 2: inconsistent process

An awards board is convened to consider an awards package for an O-3 at a shore command. The guidelines of that command allow, with the concurrence of all members, for an e-mail vote to be taken on a submission. With the concurrence of the board members, an e-mail vote is taken and the award is approved at its current level by a vote of 5-2. After the votes are tallied, the board’s senior member approaches the executive officer and asks that the vote be invalidated and that the board meet in person to discuss the award, without offering compelling reasons why a revote is necessary. The board meets — but with different members from those who participated in the original e-mail vote — discussion takes place and the award is denied.

This situation is a demonstration of the kind of practice that damages the integrity of the awards process. Awards boards must operate with a high degree of knowledge of, and faithfulness to, the process as established by the manual. Otherwise, the process becomes localized and inconsistent, which is exactly what appears to have happened. Re-evaluating the award after it had already been approved by the command’s awards board gives the impression that, because the senior member of the board was not happy with the result, the entire process was thrown out and started over again. Would the same thing have happened if a junior member of the board had been unhappy with the result?

One of the functions of an instruction is to standardize the process, to level the playing field, so that all personnel are afforded equally fair treatment, opportunities and recognition. In the case of the awards process, not only does failure to adhere to the instruction cast a pall upon those whom the process affects now, but it risks demeaning those before us who have earned the recognition and admiration of their country. The awards process does not “belong” to us. We are its stewards, and by adhering conscientiously to the established process, we keep faith with previous generations of service men and women who have been recognized for their courageous and conscientious service.

Example 3: Awards and rank

An O-5 supervisor prepares an awards package for an O-4, recommending him for a Meritorious Service Medal. The supervisor submits the package to the department head, an O-6, for review and endorsement before it is forwarded to the command awards board. The department head reads the cover sheet and, without opening the folder and reading the contents, hands it back to the preparing officer and says, “Downgrade the award to a Commendation Medal. We don’t give MSMs to lieutenant commanders.”

This all-too-familiar occurrence might be referred to as, “We don’t give that award to that rank,” and it represents one of the most egregious affronts to the integrity of the awards process, because it is in direct contradiction to the awards manual. There seems to be a widespread belief in the fleet among many senior officers that the standard end of tour award for O-4 and below is a Navy/Marine Corps Medal, and for O-5 and above, a Meritorious Service Medal. The manual, however, specifically says that rank is not a deciding factor in determining what level award is appropriate. What is an appropriate consideration is whether an individual’s performance exceeds that of others performing comparable duties. As an example, look at the guidelines for awarding the Bronze Star and the Meritorious Service Medal, two roughly synonymous awards whose primary difference, according to the manual, is whether the action took place in a combat or noncombat environment. Among the criteria for the Bronze Star is this guidance: “To justify this decoration, accomplishment or performance of duty above that normally expected, and sufficient to distinguish the individual among those performing comparable duties is required.” The guidance for the comparable Meritorious Service Medal states specifically that the award is appropriate for performance that meets the guidelines, “regardless of grade or rate.” The instruction could not be much clearer. The award is to be made based upon the distinguished performance of the individual, not the individual’s rank or rate. Awards of a higher precedence than the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal are not the exclusive privilege of O-5s and above.

This example also demonstrates another common but prohibited action: the “shortstopping” of an award recommendation before it reaches the appropriate awarding authority. The manual says plainly, “Recommendations will not be terminated at any level below the final decision-making authority.” In this example, the recommendation for the original award was terminated at the supervisory level, where an officer directed that another package — for a lower award — be submitted. The proper course of action would have been to forward the original package with the supervisor’s recommendation for the lower award.

While I believe that the awards process has lost its integrity because individuals have failed to follow the guidance provided by the manual, it is also worth noting that the manual itself is often less than clear in offering guidance as to which level of award is appropriate. One of the most commonly repeated phrases throughout the various award descriptions is something like, “This award is appropriate when the actions described do not meet the criteria for the [next higher award.]” The guidance for the next higher award, unfortunately, is similarly vaguely worded. As a result, there are very few concrete guidelines to use when determining the appropriate level of an award for a particular action or type of action. The manual would be much more helpful if it were rewritten to offer more objective, specific guidelines for properly determining the appropriate level of award.

Additionally, there are practices that are not outlined in the manual, but which are very much in use — such as establishing arbitrary quotas for the number of people who should receive an award for a particular operation, or using awards as incentives. These practices, if they are determined to be valid interpretations of the intent of the awards process, should be addressed in the manual. Otherwise, they should cease.

The awards process is an important and unique part of our military heritage. We are its stewards, and it is up to us to be sure that we adhere consistently and conscientiously to the established process so that it is not compromised by our own impulse to do what is expeditious or self-serving, rather than what is right. Now that many of our awards are again being given for actions on the battlefield, we must be especially vigilant against cheapening the statement these awards are meant to make by being careless with the process. That would be a betrayal of our heritage, and a lost opportunity to recognize exceptional actions in a way that has historically been unique to and honored by the men and women who have worn the uniforms before us.

Lt. Cmdr. John Owen is the 3rd Battalion chaplain at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Md. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Navy or Defense Department.