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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