A Combat Badge Does Not a Soldier Make

Today’s guest post comes from Tim Shea (@trshea88), a former U.S. Army Captain hailing from Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s now defunct 4th Stryker Brigade. In 2014, Tim traded the green pastures of Army life for the exhilarating, cutthroat world of economic development consulting. He maintains his sanity by writing here.

To all the badge, tab, etc. lovers out there, let me start with this: I’m one of you. I graduated top of my Field Artillery officer basic course class in March 2010, earned my Ranger tab on July 16th of the same year, and pinned on jump wings a month after that. My CAB came two years later with a blindingly fast and utterly inconsequential gunfight outside a Kuchi camp in Afghanistan’s Panjwai district. It’s a moment I’ll carry with me until the day I die.

Two years removed from the Army, I’m still proud of my CAB; I carry the battered and faded original with me everywhere on a key chain. But those intervening years have also taught me that a $7 scrap of metal did not make me a better soldier. In fact, combat badges (whatever your preferred variety) don’t make anyone a better soldier, and it’s a minor tragedy that we imply otherwise. Here’s why:

The Enemy Always Has a Say

When I returned from my deployment, I was plagued by a vague sense of guilt about my still-badgeless buddies. All around me were fellow officers who were my equals—if not my superiors—in every facet of the art of war, deprived of the same honor I carried proudly on my chest. These officers had done nothing wrong. They’d performed their jobs well, risked their lives on multiple combat patrols, and even volunteered for several dangerous assignments. In every instance, though, they came up short. Why? Because the enemy didn’t want to play.

It’s an undeniable truth that more than any other promotion, school, or military achievement, combat experience is a matter of chance. You can do everything in your power to pick a fight with the enemy. Short of deliberately triggering a pressure plate, though, you can’t make them engage you. That’s not a sign of incompetence or cowardice. In a perverse twist of fate, it’s often the exact opposite. I’ll never forget when we got credible intelligence as to why a subset of our AO was so quiet. It was because the local tactical operations center (TOC) was so proficient at coordinating airstrikes via intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) that Taliban fighters were terrified to move through the area under arms. Many of the soldiers manning that TOC never got their badges. Are they somehow worthy of contempt?

The Award System is Rife with Bureaucracy

June of 2013 saw my platoon escorting elements of our Battalion liaison team so they could, well, liaise with the Afghan National Army. As we rolled into the Afghan COP, we started taking sporadic but fairly accurate fire from some yahoo in the brush. We posted our Strykers on the run ups, the ANA lobbed some mortars his way, and that was pretty much that. Later I was filling out the requisite paper work for the day’s combat badges when one of the liaison team—an objectively worthless turd of an infantry Lieutenant—walked into my office and actually asked me if we had taken fire that day. That’s right, he had slept through his first (and only) brush with combat but was awarded a CIB anyway because regs are regs and it wasn’t my place to say otherwise.

As frustrating as that was, there was a second incident of even greater injustice. Coming back from the district shura, my patrol got involved in a brief but intense TIC in support of the local police. Manning one of my Stryker’s hatches was a medic assigned to our Civil Affairs team. He bravely exposed himself to incoming rounds, scanned his sector, and otherwise performed admirably under fire. Upon returning to base I submitted him for a CMB which was promptly kicked back because he hadn’t treated a casualty. Fair enough. I then submitted him for a CAB which was also kicked back because his command didn’t want him earning both a CAB and CMB in the same deployment. Like some kind of Kafkaesque nightmare, this kid was denied his due recognition because, well, I’m honestly still not sure.

Badges aren’t Forword Looking

One of my biggest frustrations as a fresh Lieutenant was an NCO who thought his previous combat experience was everything. Don’t get me wrong, he’d done his job in some pretty hellacious circumstances and I respected the hell out of him for that. What I had no respect for was the fact he thought that experience gave him a free pass. After numerous counselings for substandard performance, I kicked his ass out of the Army.

There’s a powerful lesson in there for soldiers both old and young. At the end of the day, badges (and tabs, and medals) are all about what you did. Yes, those actions are a source of pride, and experience, combat related or otherwise, can be invaluable. But the military is a forward looking organization. It doesn’t care if you displayed Audie Murphy levels of heroism on your last deployment. If you don’t come back willing to use that experience to train new soldiers and build your team for the next war, then you have no business staying in the military. If you can’t recognize that many yet unproven soldiers will perform just fine when they face the enemy, then you have no business staying in the military. If you treat people like crap because the stars didn’t align for them the same way they did for you, then you’re just not a decent person. It’s that simple.


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7 thoughts on “A Combat Badge Does Not a Soldier Make

  1. There’s definitely a place for the salty troop of any rank who wants to rest on his laurels. It’s called the VFW post, with DD214 in hand.

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  2. With so many of us long out of uniform, the past and past experience in uniform are what we have left and what we are proud of. Those experiences and that badge may not make the now and future soldier, but they do indicate with some pride an individual who was once a soldier on the line. Even a divisional combat patch does not indicate being under fire, in combat, and combat patches go to everyone in theater, from the guy taking fire in-country to the guy unloading tracks at the port or sitting in a theater support camp in another country in the region nowhere near the danger.

    There’s no CAB for all those non-11/non-18/medic series soldiers who were under fire prior to September 2001. That’s not just for the relatively short first Gulf War with its superb tankers who truly ran the show with their supporting FISTers, wire dogs, and mechanics right up front with the infantrymen in the back of their BFVs, but also for the Sherman or Stuart tanker in WWII, the arty forward observer in Korea, the non-infantry door gunner in Vietnam. No combat badges for any of them, and they are all of an age where resting on their laurels is not just “alright” – it’s a right they’ve earned in their VFW/DD214/civilian life/retired life/eternity present. But… No retroactive CAB awarding in AR 670-1.

    Be glad, combat veterans of a younger generation, that you have that CAB to recognize your contribution. Those who came before you have no such recognition. The Marine Corps and Navy have had their Combat Action Ribbon since 1969, and they made it retroactive to 7 December 1941. They got it right. The Army blew it.

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  3. Thank you spearhead.

    My husband has his CIB from Somalia. He paid his dues as did every other salty CIB wearing infantryman he fought with…by blood, sweat and his brothers. He was a 60 gunner with the 10th. Honorably discharged. I guess in some far out world a badge, trinket or button wouldn’t matter so much (highly unlikely) if the country they signed up GI for gave a shit about the freedoms they have, which are far from free. My husbands service is just now being recognized as an invasion rather than a peace keeping mission. That CIB was all he has had for 23 years to say I did something, and I saved the man next to me. He’s got that badge, PTSD, shit insurance from the VA, two new knees and his platoon. I watch my husband wear that pin on his suit when he does award ceremonies at the VA, and he’ll wear it at Fort Campbell this weekend.

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  4. I suppose I’m a bit older than those of you commenting here – My CIB was called a “Free-IB”, as it was awarded on a group order from HHC, 7th ID after Just Cause (you know, the 17-day “war”). I remember privates at Ranger school shouting “RI, RI, you can’t smoke me, I’m a PFC with a CIB!” (they were disabused of that notion pretty quickly, I assure you). I’m a bit old-school in any case, I learned from my Daddy (a 32-year Army veteran, COL, (RET) that unless installation regulations specify that all awards and decorations be worn while in uniform, there are (or were) plenty of installations without that reg, and if that was the case, I didn’t even wear my jump wings or AASLT wings, much less the CIB unless there was some big shindig at the O-Club with a bunch of Frog officers present,

    Gotta give you props, Angry Staff Officer – I went to jump school right after IOBC, but had done AASLT in between my sophomore and junior years at the senior military college I attended, and was foolish enough to wear my “dope on a rope” wings through the course – Which guaranteed me plenty of time in the gig pit. I can’t even imagine what the black hats did to a leg ranger!

    Look, while on active duty I was as big a badge hunter as anyone (I had an EIB long before I was awarded the CIB), I did the Ranger course back when there were four phases, including Dugway proving grounds, I even did the godawful jungle warfare school at Fort Sherman in Panama while it still existed, and bugged my RCO so badly as a CPT that he sent me to SERE school at the Air Force’s version in Fairbanks because the one at Mackall never had any slots for anyone not stationed at Bragg (which I never was, but my son is there as an E-5 with 3BCT now). I’ve got German jump wings because my mother is German, I speak fluent German, and I got drunk enough with a Fallschirmjäger Major one night at Grafenwoehr that he remembered me, tracked me down at Bad Kitzingen, and asked me if I’d like to come learn how to jump out of airplanes “auf korrekte Weise”. I never did Pathfinder because I was told there was math involved, and hey, I was Infantry, not Artillery – I didn’t even own a calculator. I would dearly loved to have claimed a flying ice cream cone, but it wasn’t in the cards. Clearly I have no issue with badge hunters, as I was one of the biggest among them – But all along, what I had in mind was not stacking qualification badges over or on the left pocket of my fatigues, then BDUs, but on building the “I love me” wall that currently adorns my home office. I grew up watching my Daddy build his as I grew up (as my son watched me build mine) and thought it was just the coolest thing on earth to have in a man cave – I didn’t learn until later that one ends up a pretty busted up old soldier just from all of the badge seeking. Yeah, the “I love me” wall, the retirement flag, the coin rack, and the various crap in my man cave look great – But it’s hell getting out of bed in the morning with these knees and ankles, and the missing discs in my back.

    As to the CIB, well, I’m with my Daddy on that one, even though if his recommendation were adopted I’d lose my own – The standard should go back to the old one, where 90 days in contact with enemy forces were required to earn it.

    Of course you’re angry – You’re on staff! S-3 and Plans and Training Officer were the closest I ever came to resigning my commission, this too shall end…Hope you get back to troop duty soon.

    Out here.

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  5. Fightingroo – I was also already in uniform when you got your Just Cause CIB. I had crossed cannons, and pulled a couple years in FIST with both infantry and armor units. I will say I don’t have nearly as many badges as you, but I do wear my hearing loss like a badge! Like you, I hail from from a senior military college. Mine is about 450 miles NE of yours. I’d guess we both came of age while the Gipper was The Man? We are surely of a similar era, both hitting the time when we could be younger grandpas…

    At least you and the author have the option to wear (or not wear) your badge. Those who seem most apt to speak of not wearing them have them to begin with (and hopefully do wear them). As I noted above, WWII tankers, a group that suffered horrible casualties in direct fire engagements, particularly in France, Belgium, and Germany, have no such recognition upon their uniforms. Nor will they – they are almost all gone now. We’ve got many similar examples from 1941 to 2001.

    As best I can tell, the Army never had a 90-day CIB period. In WWII, the Uncle Sugar had no stated CIB period of time for being in action. In Vietnam, Big Green had a 30-day combat requirement. Here’s what the reg says about WWII CIB requirements (directly pasted from the AR found as a PDF on the Army’s website):

    “The 1943 War Department Circular required infantrymen to demonstrate ‘satisfactory performance of duty in action against the enemy.’ The operative words “in action” connoted actual combat. A War Department determination in October 1944 specified that “action against the enemy” for purposes of award of the CIB was to be interpreted as “ground combat against enemy ground forces.”

    (For the curious, here’s the ref: http://www.apd.army.mil/pdffiles/r600_8_22.pdf.)

    If we want to see simplicity, just use a ribbon like the Navy and Marine Corps. But… I don’t think we’d be too successful in pulling back those CIBs. The owners are rightfully proud them, regardless of what be said to downplay the significance of giving recognition. Now we should consider being more uniform about it prior to 9/11.

    Shot, over…

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