Adopting a Veteran

My youngest son and I were excited as we drove to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas in September 2019. We were heading there to meet and spend the day with retiring military veterans, some of them veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“What do you think they will be like?” I asked him.

“I don’t know,” he replied. “But I’m so excited. I want them to have fun because they deserve it,” my son replied, squirming in his seat.

Once at Lackland, we sat through a few briefings and we were given the opportunity to read biographies of some of the military veterans. Some had patrolled Iraq looking for explosives, others had served in harm’s way in Afghanistan, and many others had served stateside, never having deployed.

Eventually, the veterans filed into the room and we had the opportunity to meet them, one on one. There was one, in particular, that we wanted to meet after having read his bio and we made our way over to introduce ourselves. As we neared, he made eye contact with us and he leapt at my son. The veteran hit my son with what we have come to affectionately label as a “love shove,” and then his tongue started darting in and out of the muzzle around his snout as he tried to lick my son’s hands, his tail wagging energetically. I told my son to take a knee and almost on queue the furry veteran laid down on his back and opened himself up for a belly rub which my son was all too willing to give him.

“I think we found a winner,” I told the handler who smiled as my son rubbed the dog’s belly. “Everyone loves Max,” the handler told us. “He’s a really good boy.” Later that day we would begin our journey to adopt Staff Sgt. Max, a military working dog (MWD), brand number X483, who was being medically retired from the U.S. military because of severe structural defects in his lower spine and pelvis. He was one of hundreds of military dogs for adoption in 2019.

An adoption like this when I was an MWD handler in the 1980s would have never been possible. When MWDs could no longer do the job, they were euthanized, much to the dismay of their handlers. But in 2000, President Bill Clinton signed H.R. 5314 into law requiring the immediate termination of the Defense Department’s practice of euthanizing MWDs at the end of their working life. The services would be mandated to facilitate the adoption of retired MWDs.

All six of my canine partners were killed by the U.S. military once they became excess equipment. But those dogs, like other non-commissioned officers in my life, helped me grow up. Brute, my first dog, taught me that no matter how things might seem, I needed to trust him. All I had to do was look between his ears like a rifle sight and I would know where the threat was even though I couldn’t see it. He could smell it.

Another dog, Dug, helped me prevent the escape of a man armed with an Uzi who held hostages for hours at our base hospital. Every time the suspect came to the doorway, Dug quietly growled sending a rumbling, angry vibration up the leash almost like a smartphone set on vibrate. Then there was Casey who was overprotective. During a disturbance call, I let down my guard around an intoxicated individual and she jumped at a guy who had armed himself with a pair of scissors. She had my back.

Roy, the last dog I ever worked, who would look at his butt every time he farted, filling the truck with a noxious odor that I swear could peel paint. It made me laugh every single time he did it. He was always so surprised when it happened.

These were the veterans I served with and I spent more time with them than with humans. We endured long, lonely hours together, frigid nights, sweltering days, hard work and isolation tethered only to the rest of our unit by a radio signal. We walked posts in places nobody back home even knew existed; Hill 180, Morbach, the flight line cemetery. It was us against the world.

They were great friends with no expectations. They gave you everything and wanted nothing in return. I loved them and I would sneak them unauthorized cans of food, some soup bones courtesy of the commissary butchers or C-rations if they gave me the sad puppy eyes. I would also give them lasagna, currywurst, bulgogi, and whatever else I might have as leftovers. On my days off, I would stop by and play fetch with them, letting them run around off leash.   

We adopted Max in October 2019 after about a monthlong process. He had served about four and a half years in the U.S. military. To honor his service, I had a U.S. flag flown over the U.S Capitol on the day he retired. Max served with Transportation Security Administration for a bit, keeping our skies safe by detecting bombs and weapons, and then he came back to the 341st Training Squadron at Lackland where all the military branches train their dogs and handlers. He helped train 17 bomb dog handlers in three years and then he began to experience physical issues and after a medical review, he was found unfit for military service. Enter the Alvarez tribe.

When we brought him home and took off his collar, he immediately started sniffing furniture drawers, door cracks, and in between couch pillows. He did not know what it was like to enter a building and not search for bombs. He went to work. He sniffed aggressively and he sprinted into a room, and then into a walk-in closet where I found him sitting, as best he could, perfectly still, alert, looking right at me. He had detected and found our hunting rifles and ammunition. I gave him his Kong and praised him and told him he didn’t have to do that anymore.

Everyday I’m reminded of what lies ahead, but I try to ignore it. Somedays his rear legs shake so badly it is like he is having a seizure in the rear half of his body. He goes on walks, runs and plays, but there have been times we’ve walked him too far and he’s had to rest because physically he cannot endure the walk. There have been times in the backyard where he has collapsed where he is at, unable to walk, because he overdid it, but in his mouth is a Kong he did not have to earn by finding a bomb and it is almost as if he is laying there, immobilized by the pain, but smiling because he is so blissfully happy. The paralysis is momentary, and if he rests long enough in the cool grass under the shade of a tree, his body recharges, and he gets back up again.

At his first veterinarian visit, the vet was excited to meet him and as she examined his spine and pelvis, she touched a sensitive area. Max turned his head to the doctor and looked at her hand. “Is that where it is, buddy?” she asked him. He licked her hand. “He’s so stoic,” she said as she hugged him. Military service broke him, but he’s still here and there’s a lot of life left in him.

It is my mission to make his life as comfortable as I can because I couldn’t do that for my other six partners. It’s the least I can do. Max has a fluffy bed, a backyard, four kids that play with him, and my wife who adores him and rubs him so hard that she puts him to sleep. He loves cheeseburgers, fries, beef jerky and anything off my plate. He loves our backyard, but his favorite place is on the couch where he likes to fall asleep and snore loudly. He’s also a smelly farter.

Introducing him into this new world of domesticated life hasn’t been without problems. He has had accidents in our home. He is not housebroken. For most of his life he has lived in a kennel where he defecated and urinated, naturally he brought those behaviors into our home, but we’ve helped him understand. Our other dog, Chowder, has also shown him how to be a suburban dog. He’s a work in progress, but he is a member of our family.

April 30 is National Adopt a Shelter Pet Day. Different cities have different rules in place for the COVID-19 response, so check with your local shelters to see how you can help. Many of my neighbors have opted to help the local shelter by fostering an animal, others have adopted a pet since they have the time to devote to training and housebreaking.

While the MWD adoption program is currently not accepting applications and they do not have dogs available for adoption, they will have future dog adoption events, so please consider bookmarking the adoption page and adopting an MWD in the future. How much does it cost to adopt a dog from the military? Nothing.

Remember, this is a free dog adoption program. If you have often asked yourself “How to adopt a dog?” or “Where to adopt a dog?” the MWD program might be a good option especially if you live near the military working dog adoption center in San Antonio. Every year they have hundreds of dogs up for adoption, and while they might not be rescue dogs for adoption, or service dog adoption, the military’s dog adoption is an alternative to local dog adoption.

If you are not near San Antonio, after contacting the 341st, you might be given instructions to reach out to a local military installation near you that has local dogs for adoption. Local dog adoption of an MWD might be easier than what we went through in San Antonio, but your best bet is to get some guidance from the MWD adoption program and then proceed from there.

For years before we adopted Max, I searched the Internet for “dogs for adoption near me,” or “dog adoption centers near me,” and “dog adoption events near me,” and “free dog adoption near me.”

Luckily for me, one of the places to adopt dogs near me that had dogs for adoption in my area was the MWD program. It is a great place to adopt a dog if you’re willing to do a little work and be patient with the process.

There are many furry veterans who are looking for a home and I guarantee you they will add color and flavor to your life, even if it comes in the form of smelly dog farts.

Replacing Military Medals

I’m a military retiree, so I belong to many online social media groups for veterans, retirees and for the components and branches that I served in while in uniform. At least a few times per week, I see misinformation unintentionally being spread by uninformed individuals about the replacing lost military medals, so I’m hoping I can help clear the air with this post.

For me it started when a family member of a deceased veteran wrote online, “Can you get replacement military medals?” The advice began to flow from veterans eager to help. I have read posts from individuals who claim to be retired service members. They state, incorrectly, that you can get a no-cost shadowbox from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) with all your medals mounted. I have also seen posts in veterans’ forums online where people state that the VA will send you awards and certificates, including mini-medals and ribbons if you ask, and that the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) also issues service medals. Well, not exactly.

Here are the facts about requesting replacement medals for veterans or replacement war service medals.

Veterans and families of veterans (next of kin) can get replacement medals from the U.S. government. A veteran or family member must complete Standard Form 180, Request Pertaining to Military Records. The form is found on the VA website. You can also complete the form electronically, but you must print it and mail it in, and that’s possible here.

Providing replacement military medals to military veterans or their next of kin is a function of each branch of service. A requesting veteran can receive a full-sized issued set of each medal at no cost. Next of kin are possibly eligible for a no cost set, but whether or not a requestor gets charged depends on whether or not the servicemember’s record is kept in the archival records and if the requestor is the veteran’s immediate next of kin.

The military branch (U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Marine Corps) will supply the requestor with one boxed set for each medal that is in the servicemember’s personnel records. Therefore, if you are requesting your grandfather’s Commendation Medal, and it is not listed in his personnel file, you have to file a correction for military records in order to get it sent to you. You can get more information about doing that here.

The services will send the requestor a government issue medal set in a cardboard or plastic box. Meaning, shadow boxes, ribbon racks and mini medals are not provided. They will mail a requestor a set that usually includes a single ribbon and the medal. Some awards have a ribbon, medal and lapel pin. Remember, each military department manages its own medal requests so requests for the issuance or replacement of military medals and decorations must be directed to the specific branch of the military in which the veteran served. SF 180 has addresses on where to send the request. It should be noted that requests for Army and Air Force (including Army Air Corps) personnel, NPRC will verify the awards to which a veteran is entitled and forward the request along with the records verification to the appropriate service department for issuance of the medals.

Requests must include the veteran’s full name, branch of service, service number or social security number, as well as the veteran’s dates of military service. The request must be signed by the veteran or next of kin if the veteran is dead. Separation documents like DD Form 214s streamline the process. Requestors who lack discharge or separation documents may obtain copies by visiting the VA portal or by completing forms found here and mailing or faxing them to NPRC. A requestor can also write NPRC and state that copies of discharge documents are needed. NPRC can be reached at: National Personnel Records Center, Military Personnel Records, One Archives Drive, St. Louis, MO 63138- 1002. The SF 180 can be used.

In accordance with 10 U.S. Code, all medals are presented at no cost to an awardee, but replacement service medals are issued on a one-time basis and without charge to the recipient of the military decoration or the immediate primary next of kin of a deceased recipient. How to get war medals replaced? According to the Army, issue or replacement of service medals and service ribbons preceding the World War I Victory Medal is no longer possible, but all other wars are available for request. The WWI awards are no longer available from the supply system, but may be purchased. The services also have instructions on how to get a replacement Purple Heart medal, but the procedures are similar to other awards. The more documentation a requestor has, the better the chances of getting the request fulfilled.

The key for veterans to remember is that the U.S. government will send you replacement military medals. Family members listed as primary next of kin of deceased veterans can get them too, but they will be sent in individual boxes. If you’re trying to organize your military service for display or assembling something for a family member, you will still have to mount ribbons on racks, figure out the award precedence and mount medals to a shadow box, in addition to finding other items you want displayed.

For some people, waiting several weeks or months for the U.S. government to send medals is acceptable. For others who might be on a timeline or are less patient, ordering a shadowbox online is the way to go. It all depends on your needs. Also, for families who are inexperienced with military awards, ordering online is easy and the awards your loved ones earned are professionally mounted and sent to you ready to hang in a shadowbox. There are no forms to fill out, no records to retrieve, nothing to mail or fax. The shadowbox is prepared and shipped in days without the bureaucracy.

Opting to go the government route will cost you time. How much time depends on how much information you gather and how strong your request is. If you have records at the ready, the government route might be good for you, but then you will have to mount them yourself in a shadowbox, unless you mail the items to a vendor like USAMM and have them do it for you.

The bottom line is that with effort and a lot of patience, a person can request U.S. Navy replacement medals, U.S. Army replacement medals, U.S. Air Force replacement medals, U.S. Coast Guard replacement medals, and U.S. Marine Corps replacement medals. And eventually, as they develop their own awards, U.S. Space Force will fill awards requests.

Hopefully this answers the question, how to replace military medals? If you have any additional information to help our veterans and their families on this topic, or I missed something, please post a comment.

The Stolen Valor Pandemic

Sometime in 1998, I read the book Stolen Valor written by B.G. Burkett, a former U.S. Army officer who served in Vietnam. Burkett’s book made me unbelievably cynical and there are times I wish I had never read it because as they say, ignorance is bliss. Burkett’s exceptional piece of investigative work created doubt in my mind towards anyone who claims to be a veteran, but fortunately over the years, I have been able to compartmentalize my emotions and the urge to automatically look at everyone with suspicion.

Burkett’s book is a deep dive into stolen valor. What is stolen valor? The definition of stolen valor is when a person claims they have served in the military, or they embellish their rank or fraudulently claim that they were presented an award for valor. In order for actions to qualify as illicit, a person must have the intent to gain money, property or some other tangible benefit by convincing others that he or she received the award.

The act of embellishing military service in the United States dates back to the Continental Army when George Washington stated that if anyone falsely claimed to have earned the nation’s first award, what would become the Purple Heart, that they should be severely punished. Little did he know what a national tragedy stolen valor would become. Decades later, nearly 75 percent of the pensioned surviving veterans claiming to be combat veterans of the Civil War had never served in the military or in combat. Stolen Valor cases are nothing new and there is no book on how to spot stolen valor.

Over the decades, fakers, posers, glory hounds, dirt bags, whatever you choose to call them have sometimes been prosecuted and convicted of lying about their veteran status. Not until 2005 did the U.S. government choose to aggressively do something about it.

President George W. Bush signed the original Stolen Valor Act in 2005. That made it illegal to lie about military service and medals, but the U.S. Supreme Court found the law unconstitutional in that it violated free speech so a revision was drafted and it was signed into law in 2013 by President Barack Obama. What is the penalty for stolen valor? Depends, but up to one year in prison. It is a federal offense and those convicted of violating stolen valor laws can also face fines and civil cases can be brought against them for financial damages if it is proven that they benefitted fiscally. The Stolen Valor Act attempted to prohibit financial gain.

Given all that is going in the world today with the coronavirus you might think that something like stolen valor isn’t really on the minds of most people, but right now some sociopath is making a plan to tell people how he helped save patients in New York City, or some insecure loser is laying the ground work for a fabrication that will make her a heroine to her friends and family. A crisis is stolen valor’s fertile ground and it is honest veterans that tend to that garden, pulling the weeds as they find them.

In recent weeks I’ve seen remarks from veterans on social media and in veterans’ forums about stolen valor and how the COVID-19 military response will bring a fresh batch of liars. So, the sentinels are ready, standing watch, waiting. But how does a person report stolen valor? And honestly, is it really that important to report? The answer depends on who you talk to. For most veterans, the answer is usually, yes, it is important enough to report.

As a veteran, you can help control stolen valor by reporting your suspicions to local investigative reporters or by working with non-profit groups that focus on stolen valor. My advice is, if you’re not experienced in this sort of thing, leave it up to professionals. Remember, just because someone is wearing something or making some bold claims does not make them a criminal.

I know that many of you can argue, as did Burkett in his book, that fakers aren’t just stealing tangible things from veterans, they are stealing intangibles like honor and valor. I agree. I can’t tell you how many times I have asked a panhandler on a street corner wearing fatigues the details of his military life since he is holding a sign that says “Veteran Please Help.” Their responses are usually incoherent ramblings as they nervously shift from one foot to the other. When I ask them “What is on your 214 (military discharge documents)?” the answers are clearly indicative that most of them have not served in the military. Somewhere along the way veterans became America’s favorite charity and while it is true that there are homeless veterans in the United States, not all vets are homeless and mentally unstable.

If the guy at church who has the Ranger stickers all over his pickup truck isn’t really a Ranger based on conversations you’ve had with him, think about whether his fibs are helping him gain a financial foothold or is he just getting cool guy points from admiring suburban dads who don’t know better. Is the veteran with “many deployments” who is a fixture at Veterans’ Day events really hurting anyone when he talks about his war duty when you know his tours of duty were in Kuwait and Qatar? Legally those are considered the “combat zone” but when was the last time you heard of anyone dying from combat in those two countries? My point is, pick your battles. If we point enough fingers and whine enough, pretty soon our efficacy as a group comes into question.

Is stolen valor a crime? You bet. The Stolen Valor Act of 2013 makes it a crime to wear things you’ve not earned and benefit from it, but it is legal to wear things you have not earned and make false or misrepresenting statements. Clear as mud, right? Unfortunately, caught in the gray area are military members and veterans.

“I think we do a really good job ensuring that veterans get what they deserve,” USAMM CEO Jared Zabaldo said. “As a veteran-owned business, and as a veteran of the Iraq War, I’ve got a deep, personal interest to protect my fellow veterans from stolen valor,” he said. “But I also have a responsibility to the men and women who have served honorably.”

Zabaldo said the USAMM awards team is comprised of military veterans who are seasoned professionals in military awards. “Usually, 99 percent of our orders are from active military personnel who are preparing for a promotion board or official photo and they want to look sharp,” Zabaldo said. “I feel good that we provide a service to military personnel and in more than 15 years of serving our military we have had just a handful of cases where someone tried to lie and purchase something that we viewed as suspicious. When that happened, we asked for a DD Form 214, and there was no response, so the order wasn’t processed.”

But Zabaldo’s comments make me think, who is responsible for policing stolen valor? If the federal government can be duped for millions of dollars in Veterans Affairs benefits, sometimes by people who have never served, how can companies and other organizations protect themselves against fraudsters? Even if organizations ask for documentation, what good is it if a faker can create an impeccable DD Form 214 and fraudulently get disability, educational, and loan benefits from an organization like the VA? How can anyone possibly become a 214 specialist?

The truth is nobody can prevent people from committing stolen valor. There are laws that cover everything in this country from driving to fishing and people still do what they want. That’s the price you pay for living in a society that has a lot of rights. There is always a small percentage of people who will do what is wrong. That’s why we have to do what is right.

How do you identify stolen valor? Usually, it is pretty easy to see and as veterans you will know it when you see it. You know what I mean, veterans. It is the same thing as spotting your kind in a crowd. How many times have you seen someone and thought, I bet that one served?

How to report stolen valor is really the issue that faces most veterans. The best thing to do is report the faker, but do not get confrontational and do not violate their rights or privacy. Instead, try to capture him or her in uniform either by photo or video and then turn that over to the proper authorities, a news agency or to nonprofits that specialize in investigating people who are military frauds. If you think someone is defrauding the VA, you can report them to the VA inspector general hotline. You can also drop me a line by commenting on this blog.

Remember, while it is frustrating to watch someone lie for attention, it is not a crime. Stolen valor is incurable. It is a timeless pandemic. As veterans, we need to work together to ensure we pull the weeds from our sacred ground. 

Coronavirus: The U.S. military will improvise, adapt and overcome, just like it has before

The coronavirus has spread quickly over the planet in a matter of months. Worldwide, as of April 6, there are more than 1.1 million people infected with nearly 63,000 deaths reported according to the World Health Organization coronavirus map.

Given the U.S. military is spread across the planet and located in more than 100 countries, it comes as no surprise that 1,435 U.S. military members have coronavirus symptoms and have been infected by the virus as of April 6. The U.S. Army has 334 cases, Air Force has 281, Marines have 86, Navy has 431 and the National Guard has 303 cases.

That might seem like a lot of people, but allow me to offer some perspective. In 1918, the U.S. military was devastated by an influenza pandemic. World War I helped influenza gain traction in military training camps stateside and in Europe. Influenza traveled throughout various military camps and across the Atlantic. At the height of American military involvement in the war, influenza and pneumonia sickened 20 to 40 percent of U.S. Army and Navy personnel, according to a report from the National Institutes of Health titled The U.S. Military and the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919.

The infection rates were so high that they impacted induction and training and rendered hundreds of thousands of military personnel non-deployable. The good news is that we aren't anywhere near those numbers yet and the even better news is that unlike 1918 it seems as though military leaders are actually listening to military medical professionals and preventing the spread of COVID-19 by taking care of trainees.

In Europe, according to the report, 'Influenza attacked Allied and German armies alike, filling field hospitals and transport trains with weak, feverish men all along the Western Front.' In October 1918, the chief surgeon of allied forces reported that influenza and pneumonia outnumbered combat casualties. According to one report, 227,000 soldiers were hospitalized for battle wounds in 1918, but half again as many allied troops, 340,000, were hospitalized for influenza. 'The flu depleted and demoralized troops, and may have diverted military and political leaders from fighting the war to combating disease. It ultimately killed more American military personnel than did enemy machine guns and artillery.'

If you are attending military training or have a loved one currently in military training, I hope this post helps answer some questions. Remember, when in doubt, reach out to the chain of command for more information. For those of you who are wondering whether or not you will attend basic training, tech school or advanced individual training (AIT), or if you’re wondering how the coronavirus outbreak will impact your military training in the future, read on.

According to U.S. Army officials, U.S. Army trainees are screened two weeks before training and then screened again at four days before departure, three days before departure, and 24 hours before shipping to basic training. They are also examined by medical personnel upon arrival to the military entrance processing stations.

Last week, the Army reduced the number of trainees it is shipping each week by about 50 percent. Roughly 600 trainees were being sent to training to ensure proper distancing is maintained in barracks, classrooms and training environments. In a 60-person open-bay barracks, about one third of that number are housed in the bay so recruits can remain at a safe distance.

That said, the Army has started new transportation procedures for moving troops to AIT by moving hundreds of them in sterilized buses. Last week around 800 soldiers traveled in 32 cleansed buses from basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina to Fort Lee, Virginia while another group went from Fort Sill, Oklahoma to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. The Army placed only 25 soldiers on each 50-passenger bus to ensure social distancing was practiced.

Army recruits are also being isolated in new trainee groups and monitored for 14 days to keep them separate from other trainees who have been at basic training longer. This helps the Army react if a recruit tests positive since it minimizes the exposure group.

Army families are no longer allowed to attend graduation ceremonies. There are roughly 54,000 soldiers in training at the moment and on April 6, the Army decided to stop sending recruits to basic training for at least two weeks.

The U.S. Air Force has taken a different approach. A week ago, they temporarily stopped sending new recruits to basic training after four recruits became ill with the coronavirus in the service’s initial training program. The pause is giving the Air Force time to clean facilities and test instructors and trainees. It also buys the service some time to examine opening a second basic training site that can accommodate social distancing practices by having the regular basic trainee volume split between two locations.

Three of the Air Force recruits contracted the disease before basic training. The fourth individual likely contracted the disease from one of the others. The Air Force has now implemented restrictive personnel movements where groups of 40 recruits fly to Lackland Air Force Base together and are segregated from other individuals for two weeks.

But this week the Air Force has plans to send a small class of 60 recruits to Keesler Air Force Base, Miss. starting on April 7 for a shortened basic training of six weeks, reduced by two and a half weeks. If the intensive basic training works at Keesler, the Air Force may decide to keep the process in place during the crisis.

Pilot graduates and technical school graduates will travel to their regular duty stations as normally planned after graduation. Tech schools will continue to train because they are deemed mission essential, according to the Air Force. Airmen are not allowed to go on leave after graduations. They are only allowed to go directly to their assignments.

Last week the Air Force announced that it was moving up the graduation date for the U.S. Air Force Academy. The class of 2020 will have commencement on April 18 and the event will be live streamed. Guests are not allowed at any Air Force graduations.

The U.S. Marine Corps last week also stopped shipping new recruits to Recruit Depot Parris Island in South Carolina after more than 20 people there, recruits and drill instructors, tested positive for the coronavirus. The recruit shipment freeze will remain in place until at least mid-April.

The Marine Corps will continue shipping new recruits to Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, the USMC’s other basic training base.

Recruits in training will practice social distancing in living, eating and training areas and like other services there will be no visitors at graduation ceremonies. Once Marines graduate from boot camp, they are being ordered to report directly to their follow-on training. Marines usually are granted a 10-day leave after completing boot camp. Families are precluded from attending graduation ceremonies.

The Navy decided last week it will not send new recruits to its boot camp in Great Lakes, Illinois after a recruit tested positive for coronavirus on March 28. All personnel at Great Lakes are being restricted in their movement and the recruit is receiving coronavirus treatment. Like its sister services, when recruits start shipping again to basic training the Navy will quarantine the recruits for two weeks before beginning training.

Trainees who are currently at Great Lakes are being broken down into smaller groups and the staff will remain on the base for at least 30 days to decrease the chance of spreading the coronavirus.

To date, the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps have all reported recruits who have tested positive for the coronavirus in the USA.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), coronavirus is spread when the virus that causes coronavirus is passed from person to person mainly through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs causing coronavirus transmission. Spread is more likely when people are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet). You can get more information from the CDC coronavirus website.

What is the coronavirus? According to the CDC, a novel coronavirus is a new coronavirus that has not been previously identified. The virus causing coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), is not the same as the coronaviruses that commonly circulate among humans and cause mild illness, like the common cold.

A diagnosis with coronavirus 229E, NL63, OC43, or HKU1 is not the same as a COVID-19 diagnosis. Patients with COVID-19 are evaluated and cared for differently than patients with a common coronavirus diagnosis. The WHO officially named the disease that is causing the 2019 novel coronavirus outbreak. It was first identified in Wuhan, China which is considered the coronavirus origin. The name of this disease is coronavirus disease 2019, abbreviated as COVID-19. In COVID-19, ‘CO’ stands for ‘corona,’ ‘VI’ for ‘virus,’ and ‘D’ for disease. The coronavirus incubation period is 1-14 days.

Please continue to follow developments of the COVID-19 outbreak by checking this blog for coronavirus updates. The one thing to remember is coronavirus deadly, but recovery rates are good and social distancing and washing your hands can make a huge difference.

Lastly, if you’re wondering about the spread of the coronavirus in the USA, and are tired of hearing about coronavirus news, it might be best to stick to reading official sources of information like the CDC and WHO rather than the news.

For example, recently I read that a dog had tested positive for COVID-19 and that a tiger at a zoo had tested positive as well. Yet according to the CDC, animals are not at risk of being infected. So, there is no way that someone can find the coronavirus in dogs, so the panic amongst pet owners is mostly fabricated.

Let’s keep our wits, practice precautions and stay healthy. Remember, improvise, adapt and overcome. One day at a time. Keep the perspective from WWI and realize that military leaders are doing all they can to protect our most valued commodity, the men and women of our armed forces.

Navy Ships Treat Patients as 450 Navy Medical Personnel Prepare to Deploy for COVID-19

The U.S. Navy’s hospital ship, USNS Mercy is open and seeing patients in the Port of Los Angeles according to the U.S. Navy. The ship will serve as a hospital for non-COVID-19 patients.

The Mercy is capable of providing full medical care including critical care and general surgery. The ship is in Los Angeles to allow civilian health care professionals to focus on treating COVID-19 patients. The mission was created to alleviate the volume of patients at Los Angeles area hospitals and allow those medical facilities to use their equipment on treating COVID-19 patients.

According to the Navy, the Mercy’s primary mission “is to provide an afloat, mobile, acute surgical medical facility to the U.S. military that is flexible, capable and uniquely adaptable to support expeditionary warfare,” officials said. The ship’s secondary mission is to provide hospital services to support U.S. disaster relief and humanitarian operations worldwide.

On the east coast, the USNS Comfort arrived in New York March 30 and will begin seeing patients as early as March 31. The Comfort was in port for maintenance for a scheduled four weeks, but when the call came that the ship was needed, it was ready in four days. The ship set out from Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia on March 28 and made it to New York City two days later. The Comfort, like the Mercy, is also going to see non-COVID-19 patients to alleviate a burgeoned New York healthcare system.

Both ships are equipped with 12 operating rooms, 1,000 hospital beds, medical laboratory, operating rooms, pharmacy, optometry lab, digital radiology, blood banks, medical equipment repair shops, a CAT scan, prosthetics and physical therapy capability. The ships will also manage trauma cases and other emergencies. The Mercy and Comfort are the longest-serving hospital ships in continuous operation in U.S. history. 

Hospital ships date back to the early 1800s when the USS Intrepid was used as a hospital ship after being reconfigured. That model, for the most part, is applied today. To date, only one ship, the USS Relief, was built to serve as a hospital ship. The Mercy and the Comfort were converted from other uses into hospital ships.

In 1918, during an influenza pandemic, two Navy hospital ships were briefly stationed in New York to care for overflow patients. In 1933, the Navy sent doctors and corpsmen from the USS Relief to Long Beach in response to an earthquake. Years later in 1989, the Mercy responded to the Loma Prieta earthquake by providing food and shelter for disaster victims.

According to the Navy, since 2001, the Comfort and Mercy have participated in 19 humanitarian assistance and disaster response missions, including Operation Unified Assistance, the U.S. military response to the 2004 earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean. The ships treated more than 550,000 patients.

Following the attacks of 9-11 in 2001, the Comfort was sent to New York City and in 2005, the Comfort deployed to the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, where it treated 1,258 patients in Louisiana and Mississippi. 

As of March 30, the U.S. Navy states that 144 of its military members have tested positive for COVID-19, seven have been hospitalized and 14 have recovered. In total, to include Navy civilians, dependents and contractors, as well as uniformed personnel, the Navy has 213 COVID-19 cases.

Lastly, about 450 naval medical personnel are deploying to Texas and Louisiana to assist with combating the COVID-19 outbreak U.S. Northern Command announced Monday.

COVID-19: Hold My Beer

A few weeks ago, this weekly blog would have started with an introduction about who I am and why I think you should read my posts, but Murphy as we all know always has other plans and today, I find myself joining the cacophony of those writing about COVID-19.

Last week I received an e-mail from U.S. Army Human Resources Command asking me if I was willing to return to duty to help the nation in the response to COVID-19. I replied to the e-mail within seconds as I’m sure thousands of other military retirees did, each of them raising their hands albeit but virtually. Send me. I doubt I will get the call since I’m not a person with a critical skill set, but just in case I have a razor handy and I’m hitting the treadmill.

In the immediate aftermath of 9-11, first responders became the reluctant heroes of that catastrophe. These days, COVID-19 has placed a cape on the backs of medical professionals, delivery drivers, warehouse workers, grocery store employees and others. Bravery comes unexpectedly and suddenly and we are never fully prepared for what it is that we will do when fate comes to reckon. But like the brave men and women on United Airlines Flight 93, around the nation Americans like those aboard that flight are making life and death decisions and confronting this invisible threat which has already claimed the lives of thousands of people.

In response to COVID-19, many everyday Americans are experiencing for the first time in their lives, what members of the armed forces face routinely—death, high-stress environments, uncertainty, isolation, danger, self-sacrifice, and a lack of resources. The difference is that those of us who served, and those who are still serving, signed up for all of the drama that comes with military service. We embrace the suck, as we like to say, mostly because we asked for it and it is a source of twisted pride amongst those in the military. Draftees too embraced it and made the best of things.

In the military, we compete with each other over which branch has it worse. Then within the services, we get even more granular in our arguments, certain military occupations have it worse than others and the harder the duty, the more respect that is garnered or expected. Even within a career field, there is hierarchical jockeying. A few months ago, my son’s youth group visited an Army aviation unit and there was friendly competition about who flew the better or more important helicopter.

In recent weeks I’ve seen the response to COVID-19 compared to war and right on cue the outrage from veterans began. Just today I heard a news anchor say that medical professionals are charging bravely up a hill in a fight against COVID-19. For a 24-year veteran like me, I reflexively think of the U.S. Army’s May 1969 fight on Hamburger Hill in Vietnam and I admit, an internal war starts as I struggle to liberate my mind of cynical thoughts.

The president has joined the fray and he has referred to himself as a wartime president. I’ve found myself comparing him to FDR, but it is an apples to oranges comparison. People being interviewed on television are saying things like “It looked like a war zone” when they describe any COVID-19 landscape and I wonder to myself if their assessment is based on experience. Suddenly every reporter is a war correspondent using words like combat, fight, war, battle, and other terms that evoke strong emotions from veterans. But vets, we need to control our emotional response to the current climate. We need to avoid the “Been there, done that, got the t-shirt,” know-it-all mentality that is often affixed to us when it comes to a crisis. That’s what the word “veteran” actually means, “A person who has long experience in a particular field.”

As veterans, we should not be using our military experiences to make others uncomfortable by marginalizing their fears and minimizing contributions. I’ve seen it going on in social media circles and I’ve discussed this with military buddies. We should not be elevating our stature during this crisis as though we are greater than what is happening, as if we are the wise person atop the mountain having attained some type of wisdom only military people can acquire. Veterans, we are not more enlightened or anointed by some experiential being simply because we have worn a uniform or gone off to war.

Instead of looking critically at what our friends, family and neighbors are saying and doing, we should be the steady voice of reason and calm. We should not be divisive. The same way that we came together in the ranks, regardless of race, religion, gender, to achieve objectives and complete a mission, we should help combat this invisible enemy. The nation has a different mission for us.  

When others are panicking, help ease their fear by sharing statistics from the CDC, not data you picked up from some meme. When you see someone spreading misinformation online, reassure and re-center them with factual information. Nobody wants to hear a “No shit, there I was …” story. It has no relevance to a parent who is happy that the grocery store is open so they can feed their kids. Similarly, your war stories about how you ate dirt for six months in a foxhole do not matter to the software engineer whose company might collapse. For most Americans, the COVID-19 outbreak is the epic crisis of their lives. This a war they never signed up to fight and like some of us have done, they are making it up as they go along. Let's help them.

I admit, regrettably, that initially I cringed when I heard the word “hero” being used to describe grocery clerks and stocking personnel because I associated that term with names like Desmond Doss and Rafael Peralta, men who placed their lives on the line for their fellow brothers in arms. My views have since evolved.

Can medical professionals, grocery store employees, delivery drivers and others who are keeping our economy and people alive die just by going to work? Emphatically, yes. A person is no less a hero because they died from a virus trying to care for the sick and not from a sniper’s bullet in war. A person is not less brave because they go to a domestic job and risk exposing themselves to a virus that can kill them as opposed to driving in a convoy in a war zone.

Veterans, let’s be the people that our nation needs us to be. Muster the patience to refrain from judgment. Avoid acting as if you know how this will all end because the truth is you do not. Be a good battle buddy and wing man and let your friends, family and neighbors know that you’re all in this fight together and that you are in their corner with sponge and bucket. Help people prepare for the worst, but keep the morale high in your circles. Discuss what you can do for those close to you if something happens to them. Ensure they know you will take care of their family. Ensure there is a plan for your family as well. The military is a team of teams. Our communities are no different. They need you.

Veterans have a legacy of resiliency, a standard of grit that is passed down, generation to generation, started long ago by a ragtag group of idealistic rebels with muskets. Let’s live up to that legacy.

Like that ragtag group, the battlefield is our backyard. Let’s step up and show people not that we know it all and not that their fears are unfounded, instead let’s show them through leadership and support, and not criticism, what it means to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. And let’s ensure we’re being real too and allow ourselves to be vulnerable. You might be veterans or still serving, but you don’t have all the answers because none of you, zero, has ever been through something like this before. None of you have fought a worldwide pandemic of this magnitude.

Right now, my sixth-grade son is wailing on his clarinet. He is playing America the Beautiful and it is off key and other times pitch perfect. How apropos. As the sun fades through my window, the music screeching in the background, I’m thankful, as I was in Iraq, that I get to see the sun go down another day and tomorrow when I wake up I will think that all I have to do is get through another day. Another day and I’m closer to home.

And I can’t help but think about the letter Rafael Peralta wrote to his brother the night before he died in Fallujah. “Be proud of me, bro … and be proud of being an American.”

Let’s embrace the suck, people. Let’s do this.

Hold my beer.

Military medals: What do they represent?

Ask any military veteran how they feel about military medals and you will get a different answer every time. For some, their military medals were earned silently underneath the surface of the oceans of the world on patrol with the U.S. Navy. Others earned theirs flying above a disaster zone in an Army National Guard helicopter, delivering much-needed food and water to victims of the natural world’s wrath. And in a jungle in Central America, U.S. Air Force engineers earned their military medals constructing a base where before there was only a swamp as U.S. Marine Corps mechanics thousands of miles away earned theirs keeping a fleet moving during offensive operations overseas.

Most military personnel have earned a military medal for doing something beyond what is expected. At their core, military medals represent going above and beyond, exceeding expectations, but sometimes a military medal is awarded solely for participation in a campaign or operation. But make no mistake, military medals like the National Defense Service Medal, the Iraq Campaign Medal (ICM), Korea Defense Service Medal (KDSM), for example, are not like a child’s participation trophy where everyone on the team gets one. These medals represent a willingness to do something when others would not. It might mean a willingness to raise a right hand, take an oath and serve like millions did after 9-11, or it might reflect dedication to serve in a faraway place like Afghanistan. These military medals represent the unspoken sacrifices that our men and women in uniform make for our country. The awards tell everyone that those who wear it on their uniforms bore witness to history.

The ICM, for example, is for service in Iraq from 2004 to 2011. This military medal for some represents months and years of separation from loved ones in often dangerous conditions. It can, for many veterans, represent the conditions they endured during their deployment, or the victories and losses. While not a personal decoration, military medals like the ICM can be held in high regard or be a source of pride because of what they represent. For those who wear it the military medal is more than just about serving in Iraq. It is about being a part of making history in Iraq.

Although the U.S. military mostly now watches over the peace in South Korea, the KDSM also represents sacrifices endured by U.S. military members and their families, but the military medal also shows a serious commitment by those who served there and kept the tip of the spear sharp through rigorous training and professional execution of their assigned missions to deter North Korea from ever attacking again.

Most military veterans downplay the significance of military medals that are awarded for service simply because all they have to do is show up in a particular area of the world, during a specific period of time in our American history. Those military medals are important because they reflect the level of experience a person might bring to the table. A food services soldier might have experience making meals for a battalion in field conditions, but that same soldier might bring a different skill set to an organization if he or she has fed troops under fire. They might have extraordinary improvisational skills because of challenges they faced downrange. Those military medals reflect anecdotes that are a part of a veteran’s history.  

Like millions of other U.S. military personnel, I was decorated with military medals for my service in Iraq. My decorations were earned trying to tell the story of the U.S. military and its coalition partners in Iraq. Many of my counterparts were decorated with their military medals for different reasons like protecting our base, guarding convoys, keeping a steady stream of supplies flowing, processing personnel actions, training Iraqi forces, setting up communication networks, you name it. All of us had different roles, all of us contributed in different ways to the overall mission and the military medals we earned shows that we are all valuable. 

Military medals that are presented for personal achievement or bravery are considered decorations. Usually these are the military medals that veterans hold in highest regard because they represent the individual contribution of a uniformed military member to a mission or campaign. 

Depending on the military medal that is presented, a decoration can reflect the depth, breadth and bravery of an individual’s contribution during a given operation. In some extreme cases the military medals represent the ultimate sacrifice made by many of our men and women in uniform.

We had several soldiers at Multinational Security Transition Command Iraq make the ultimate sacrifice during my tour and posthumous military medals were presented during memorial ceremonies. Along those lines, several personnel earned Purple Hearts in our unit, but the two I recall were Air Force computer technicians who sustained wounds when their vehicle was attacked by terrorists using an IED. They were traveling to install a communications network. Our general pinned their awards to their pajama tops in the hospital. Enemy violence does not discriminate.

The military medals system is subjective and far from perfect. Spend enough time in uniform and you will hear stories of people rising up to challenges, performing Herculean feats and committing actions under fire that are nothing short of heroic. Our military personnel earn their military medals by serving during periods of crises, in conflicts and by distinguishing themselves.

To me, the question should not be “What do military medals represent?” Better said it should be “Who do military medals represent?”

For those that serve, military medals remind us of those who we have served, and those who have stood alongside of us in formation. For a military veteran, a Humanitarian Service Medal might stir memories of a smiling Haitian child given his first meal several days after a hurricane destroyed his nation. A Military Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal might trigger thoughts of the kids at a Korean orphanage where an NCO volunteered as an English instructor. A Meritorious Service Medal might be looked upon by the recipient in fondness when she remembers the troops she commanded. A posthumous Medal of Honor might cause a former teammate to reflect on the sacrifices the awardee made for others.

Military medals represent the many faces of those military veterans have served; they represent those to our left and right, who stand with us shoulder to shoulder and military medals represent those who are no longer with us.

They are for veterans, precious metals.

Thin Ribbons Make Big Impressions

Ultrathin Ribbons
The first time I saw ultrathin ribbons I was sitting across from a sergeant in my unit and he was telling me about what I needed in order to get promoted. He looked impressive as if someone had picked him up by his ankles, dipped him in starch and ironed him. Even his ultrathin ribbons seemed starched. He was crisp.

I asked him about his ultrathin ribbons and how he had ironed them. He laughed and told me that ultrathin ribbons were something that a soldier could buy, not make. He told me he had special ordered his ultrathin ribbons and that he liked how much lighter they were compared to regular ribbons.

Military Thin Ribbons
In his desk drawer he happened to have his old rack of military thin ribbons and he took them out for me to look at them. He had just a couple of more ribbons on his rack than I did and I could not believe how much lighter his military thin ribbon rack was compared to mine. And the military thin ribbons looked as if they had just been removed from a steam press. The looked extraordinary compared to my traditional rack which had fraying ribbons and brass showing in between each awkwardly placed ribbons.

He explained that the military thin ribbons were worth the money when I asked about their costs. The sergeant said they were inexpensive and would more than pay for themselves if I got promoted due to my uniform appearance.

Thin Ribbon Rack
He continued his sales pitch about the thin ribbon racks, but I was sold when I first saw them. Thin ribbon racks were not only lighter and easier to put on a uniform, they were also not as bulky. Thin ribbon racks did not get snagged on things as often as traditional ribbon racks and ordering them was simple.

Personalized Ribbon/Custom Ribbon/National Defense Ribbon
The sergeant also mentioned that each custom ribbon rack was a personalized ribbon rack. I later learned they were designed by experienced professionals for each individual. Custom ribbon racks could be modified easily, if let’s say an individual added an additional award of the National Defense ribbon to his personalized ribbon rack, a soldier could easily just remove the bronze star device and add another to the custom ribbon. It would still be a personalized ribbon rack if it just needed adjustments to the devices on the ribbons. There would not be a need to order a new rack solely because the National Defense ribbon needed another device, whereas a National Defense ribbon on a traditional ribbon rack might require a new ribbon if a soldier uses the traditional ribbon device that punctures the ribbon. 

Super Thin Ribbons 
Eventually I listened to my sergeant friend and I purchased my super thin ribbons for my Class A uniform. He was right, I got promoted and the small fee I paid for the super thin ribbons was more than covered by the extra money I was making monthly because of the promotion. I used super thin ribbons until the day I retired and those super thin ribbons are now hanging in my shadow box looking as sharp as ever.

Rack ‘em up: A Ribbon Rack Builder Makes Uniform Rack Building Easy

Army Ribbon Rack Builder
I spent about a decade as an enlisted guy in the U.S. Air Force and Air Force Reserve before making the leap to the U.S. Army as a commissioned officer. As a new Army officer, I had to determine what Air Force awards I could wear on my Army uniform. I did it the old school way, by reading regulations, looking at charts and tables and painstakingly piecing my ribbon rack together. Back in the day, there was no military ribbon rack builder. There were no technological aids.

Then before I retired, I had one more promotion board to which I was required to submit a packet. A first sergeant walked by my office and saw me trying to piece together my ribbon rack and she recommended that I check out the Army ribbon rack builder. She directed me to the website and all I had to do was find my ribbons and medals, select them, and the Army ribbon rack builder built a virtual ribbon rack and placed them in order of precedence according to Army regulations. All I had to do was click my mouse. There was no need to look up regulations, examine pictures, or explore Army ribbon charts. I also didn’t have to go to the store and spend all kinds of time sorting through individual ribbons. I just found the authorized award on the web page, clicked it and added it to my awards batch, and the Army ribbon rack builder took care of the rest by placing them in order of precedence and attaching devices where required. I was able to easily include medals I earned in the Global War on Terror by using the Army ribbon rack builder. If you’re a member of the U.S. Army, Army Reserve or Army National Guard, the Army ribbon rack builder can help you build a regulation Army ribbon rack with ease.

Navy Ribbon Rack Builder
And if there is an Army ribbon rack builder, rest assured there is also a Navy ribbon rack builder. The Navy ribbon rack builder works on the same platform as the Army ribbon rack builder, only, you guessed it, the Navy ribbon rack builder is designed to help U.S. Navy, Naval Reserve, U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Marine Corps Forces Reserve personnel build a rack. If you are a member of the naval services and you have served in the U.S. Army, Air Force or Coast Guard, you can select in the Navy ribbon rack builder authorized awards to include in your ribbon rack. The Navy ribbon rack builder also includes Department of Defense awards created for U.S. military personnel who have served in various roles and campaigns in the Global War on Terror.

Air Force Ribbon Rack Builder
Similarly, the Air Force ribbon rack builder can help members of the U.S. Air Force, Air Force Reserve and the Air National Guard organize a virtual ribbon rack online. Military members who served in the Army, Navy or Marine Corps can include authorized awards from these branches of service when they use the Air Force Ribbon Rack Builder. The Air Force ribbon rack builder uses the same technological platform as its sister service rack builders and helps airmen create a regulation-compliant ribbon rack. The Air Force ribbon rack builder also includes recently added Air Force ribbons that have been added to the U.S. Air Force’s award inventory since the start of operations in the Global War on Terror.

CAP Ribbon Rack Builder 
The U.S. Air Force has stated that in addition to the Air Reserve and Air National Guard, that the Civil Air Patrol or CAP is a member of its total force package. That said, CAP members can use the CAP ribbon rack builder to build their ribbon rack. As the official auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force founded in 1941, CAP has a large inventory of ribbons and awards that are worn by its nearly 70,000 senior members and cadets.

CAP authorizes its members to wear certain U.S. military awards on their CAP uniforms, and the CAP ribbon rack builder can help you determine what branch specific awards are authorized for wear on your CAP uniforms. The CAP ribbon rack builder takes the mystery out of assembling a CAP ribbon rack. And like the other ribbon rack builders, the CAP ribbon rack builder allows you to choose, large or small racks, and regular or thin ribbons.

Military Ribbon Rack Builder
The military ribbon rack builder, as you can see, can be customized for any branch of service to build a customized military ribbon rack. By using the military ribbon rack builder, service members can get their uniforms ready for inspections, schools and significant events like balls, weddings and ceremonies. The military ribbon rack builder can also be used by veterans who have decided to make their military ribbons a keepsake of their military service. For those who are unfamiliar with military service and are trying to assemble a veteran’s military awards, the ease of use of the military ribbon rack builder can help navigate the awards and decorations landscape of the U.S. military with award selections from all branches of service, including the U.S. Space Force which was formed in December 2019 and falls under the purview of the Department of the Air Force.

Large Ribbon Rack Builder/Small Ribbon Rack Builder
Regardless of what branch of service you choose, the large ribbon rack builder is likely going to be your solution for most of your uniform needs. The large ribbon rack builder helps you construct your regulation-sized military ribbon racks for use on your uniforms. But if you’re looking for a way to show your military pride, say on a helmet flight bag, a small ruck sack or on a mission bag, the small ribbon rack builder is the way to go and is a nice complement to morale patches. Using the small ribbon rack builder will enable you to build a tiny military ribbon rack that you can attach to just about anything. They make great conversation starters and to fellow veterans who see them they say that you’ve been there, done that.

The best part about using the large ribbon rack builder and the small ribbon rack builder is that you can create them and attach them using magnets, traditional pins, or even make them stickers. You can build them using traditional ribbons or thin ribbons. The choice is yours, but using the large ribbon rack builder or the small ribbon rack builder puts you in control with just a click of the mouse.

Military Ribbons: More Than A Résumé on a Chest

Military Ribbon Rack
They resemble tiny bricks and they are all colored and patterned differently. Some are adorned with tiny brass items; letters, numerals, leaves and stars, and some are framed, but we know because they are placed so prominently on a military person’s uniform that they are important to the people who wear them. Usually those who are junior in rank have less on their military ribbon racks, if they have one at all. But the older, more seasoned veterans, have multiple rows of the colored ribbons climbing upward from their chest to their shoulders, as many lines of ribbons on their chests, they have on their faces. Although lightweight while on the uniform, some of those military ribbon racks have proven to be hard-earned, heavy in the weight that was carried in the form of stress, danger, physical work and in some cases memories that cannot be unseen.

A military ribbon rack is a résumé that tells those who know how to read them, where a person has been, what they have experienced, what they know and what they are capable of. But more importantly it tells us about their character and how they live their lives. Simply put, military ribbon racks do not just tell us what medals and decorations a person has earned. Instead, they tell us who the person is. And like each individual who wears them, military ribbon racks are unique. Despite the fact that thousands of individuals might be wearing the same ribbon, each of them earned it their own way.

Combat Action Ribbon
Take, for example, the Combat Action Ribbon. According to the U.S. Marine Corps, this ribbon is awarded to members of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Coast Guard (when the Coast Guard or units thereof operate under the control of the Navy) in the grade of captain/colonel and below, who have actively participated in ground or surface combat.

The Combat Action Ribbon earned by a Coast Guardsman protecting oil platforms in the Persian Gulf might have been earned when he returned fire after an insurgent group fired small arms at his patrol boat. A Navy sailor assigned as a corpsman could have earned his Combat Action Ribbon by returning fire, protecting his wounded as he tried to evacuate them. A Marine might earn his Combat Action Ribbon after his convoy was engaged by an IED and he counterattacked with his unit to suppress an ambush.

These are three very different missions, but they all wear the same Combat Action Ribbon. The ribbon represents how each of these individuals responded when it mattered most. The commonality is not a shared experience; it is a shared set of values that runs through each of these individuals and that is what is represented when they wear the Combat Action Ribbon.

Military Ribbon Chart
When I first enlisted after high school, I had no idea what all of the colored little ribbons meant that military personnel wore on their uniforms. I left basic training with one ribbon and then earned another when I finished tech school, but when I reported to my first duty station, I still had no idea what most of the colorful ribbons meant.

It was only seven years after the Vietnam War had ended and many of that war’s veterans were still in the ranks. Luckily for me, outside of his office, the first sergeant had a military ribbon chart that was poster-sized and every chance I could I studied it.

When I was on duty, I took mental snapshots of what I had seen and after duty hours I tried to remember what I had seen members of my unit wearing on their chests. I looked up the ribbons on the military ribbon chart on the wall. My regular reviews of the military ribbon chart taught me that in my unit were a lot of men who had served in the Vietnam War, some in other branches of the military like the Army and Marine Corps. By examining the ribbons on their chest and looking for the ribbons on the military ribbon chart, I learned that some had been wounded in combat and others had fought with valor during the war. The military ribbon chart taught me to read the ribbons on their chests, and it showed me the kinds of men I was standing to the left and right of.

Military Ribbon Order
At that time the hardest part for me wasn’t remembering and then recognizing the award, but rather, it was determining the military ribbon order. I did not know why some awards carried more weight than others. I did not understand why my supervisor wanted to award me with an Achievement Medal instead of a Commendation Medal. Frankly, I did not know which one was greater in the military ribbon order until I looked it up on the top’s poster. But there were plenty of things I still didn’t understand. For example, I did not understand why according to military ribbon order, the Professional Military Education (PME) ribbon had greater precedence than an Overseas Short Tour ribbon. From what everyone told me, NCO courses that enabled you to earn the PME ribbon were easy compared to doing a hard tour in Korea (at least in my job). Nonetheless, I studied the military ribbon order on the poster and it helped me as I moved forward in my career.

Military Ribbon Identifier
Today, handheld military ribbon identifiers and military ribbon identifier posters like the one hanging outside my first sergeant’s office are still around, but for the most part they are rare. You can find military ribbon identifiers online at USAMM. Their military ribbon identifier is easy to use. It has an entire web page of ribbons and a user can just click the ribbon and get a brief description of the award and they can determine if they want to add it to a rack or just purchase the lone ribbon. The descriptions help because the Air Force Overseas Long Tour ribbon is almost identical to the Air Force Overseas Short Tour ribbon. Sometimes when the colors and designs of the ribbons so closely resemble each other, it is hard to tell them apart.

Military Ribbon Colors
But usually military ribbons come in assorted colors. The Institute of Heraldry, a U.S. Army agency, is charged with designing the multicolored ribbons which adorn the uniforms of millions of service men and women around the world. Military ribbon colors vary and each ribbon’s colors are symbolic.

For example, the military ribbon colors of the Congressional Medal of Honor represent different things. According to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, the color white represents purity and innocence, and blue signifies vigilance, perseverance and justice. So, in addition to ribbons telling us something about the individuals who wear them, military ribbon colors also have a story to tell about what earning each ribbon means. The colors are symbolic.

Special Military Medals
My first sergeant when I was 19 saw me standing outside of his office once, studying the ribbon poster. It was something I did almost daily. He spoke to me from behind his desk: “There’s only a handful on that whole poster that you really need to know,” he shouted. He came out of his office and pointed to them. “These top ones right here.” Those were special military medals, he added.

He pointed to the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Navy Cross, Air Force Cross, and the Silver Star. I ignorantly asked him why he considered them special military medals. I honestly did not know. He explained that many of the other ribbons on the chart were campaign and service medals, meaning, that they were awarded for participating in a campaign. The National Defense Service Medal, he said, “I got that just for being in the military during Vietnam.” But the individual medals and decorations, those were for personal actions, for gallantry or meritorious service.

The top five decorations, those awards mattered the most and those were special military medals because of the courage and bravery needed to earn them. The Medal of Honor, for example, has been awarded only 3,508 times in its 159-year history. Today there are only 71 living recipients. According to the Department of Defense, the Medal of Honor is the highest military decoration awarded by the U.S. government. It is presented by the president, in the name of congress, and is conferred only upon members of the U.S. armed forces who distinguish themselves through conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in action against an enemy of the United States, while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force, or while serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party. There are three distinct versions for the U.S. Army, Air Force, and the Navy, to include the Marine Corps, and the Coast Guard.

The second highest special military medal is the Distinguished Service Cross which is awarded by the Army. While I was in Iraq, one of the officers in my unit earned the DSC after an hours-long firefight in Iraq along with his Iraqi counterparts. The DSC is awarded for extraordinary heroism while engaged in action against an enemy of the United States, while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force, or while serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party. Actions that merit the DSC must be of such a high degree that they are above those required for all other U.S. combat decorations but do not merit award of the Medal of Honor. The DSC is equivalent to the Navy Cross and the Air Force Cross. The Air Force and Navy Crosses have the same criteria for award as the DSC and they are special military medals for the same reasons.

The Silver Star is the third highest special military medal and it is awarded for gallantry in action against and enemy. The criteria for award requires the recipient had been engaged in action against an enemy of the United States, while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force, or while serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party. Actions that merit the Silver Star must be of such a high degree that they are above those required for all other U.S. combat decorations but do not merit award of the meet Medal of Honor or a service cross.

Yellow Ribbon Military
A different kind of military ribbon is the yellow ribbon. This kind of ribbon isn’t worn on the military uniform, but military families tend to wear them as pins to show their support for a loved one who is deployed or overseas. When I was deployed to Iraq, my wife wore a yellow ribbon pin and she also kept a yellow ribbon tied around a tree in our front yard.

The yellow ribbon military memory I have dates back to the Vietnam War. I remember as a kid there was a popular song that came out in the 1970s and was played on the radio all the time. Later, during Operation Desert Storm the yellow ribbon military support had a resurgence and everywhere it seemed that yellow ribbons were on display.

In post-911 America as forces deployed worldwide to participate in the Global War on Terror, yellow ribbon military support peaked with U.S. troop supporters wearing pins, shirts, displaying ribbons on their homes and affixing magnets and stickers to their cars.

When I reflect on my career, my first sergeant was right all those years ago. It was important for me to recognize those top decorations because as a young military member I needed to know my place in the military culture. If I saw anyone wearing any of those top awards, I should watch them, learn from them and strive to respond to situations the way they did if I were ever placed in similar scenarios.

During my 26 years I was privileged to have worked alongside of men who earned the DSC, Silver Star, and the Bronze Star for valor. I have also met Medal of Honor recipients, including the late John Levitow who was the first enlisted man I ever saluted. I say it was a privilege to know them not because of a little piece of ribbon on their chest, but because of how they lived. In all cases I did not know they had earned decorations for gallantry until I saw the ribbons on their chests. They were humble and they did not talk about their actions. 

Luckily, I listened to my first sergeant and learned about military ribbons and their meanings because had I not, I would not realize I was walking among heroes.