The Secretary of the Navy takes pleasure in …

Rummaging through the closet the other day, I came across a brown padded envelope that emitted a small tinkling sound when picked up. Inside were my large medals, mounted and ready to be worn on an appropriate ceremonial uniform. The medals were not up-to-date; there is some expense involved with getting medals mounted so I did not bother having them redone every time a new one was added.

Ribbons representing the medals, as well as those of awards which only come with ribbons, are worn on service dress and daily uniforms, but not on working uniforms. Perhaps the first thing any officer or Sailor does when meeting another for the first time is to glance at their ribbons; much can be learned about where the other person has been and what level of performance they accomplished.

In 1984 as a second class petty officer, I encountered U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant General Alfred M. Gray, who would go on to earn a fourth star and serve as Commandant of the Marine Corps a few years later. General Gray’s ribbon “rack” extended from the top of the pocket on his starched class C shirt to the top of his shoulder; I’m not sure I ever saw that many ribbons on another individual.

More awe-inspiring to me at the time was the fact that the general was alone, walking in the courtyard between buildings in the compound occupied by many staffs including his own Fleet Marine Force and the Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Atlantic Fleet. Admirals never walk alone, especially outside. Instead, a Navy flag officer is accompanied by aides derisively called “strap-hangers.”

But here I was, turning a corner and running into a Marine Corps three-star; I snapped off a salute and said “Good morning, General,” and he ambled by without breaking stride, giving me a sharp salute in return as well as saying “And to you, Petty Officer.”

I smiled at that then, and again just now recalling it.

* * *

In my career I was awarded nine medals for professional achievement — six Navy Commendation Medals and three Navy Achievement Medals — and a handful of service and campaign medals including the Expert Pistol Medal. Twice I was put in for a higher award, the Meritorious Service Medal, but both times the recommendations were downgraded to Navy Commendation Medals instead. I was somewhat bitter the first time this happened, but by the second I had retirement in my sights and knew it didn’t matter.

One award I prize is the Navy Good Conduct Medal, signifying my years of enlisted service, and one of the more unusual is the NATO Medal, which I received twice: once for while serving in USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51) while enforcing the no-fly zone over Bosnia and again later at Task Force 63 while providing logistic support to the multi-national force of ships performing the same mission.

In the Navy there are many types of awards, from medals and ribbons to letters of commendation and appreciation. When I was an enlisted Sailor getting an award of any kind was difficult, with letters far more common than medals. Generally speaking the more senior you were, the more likely you were to get a medal, and some award criteria specified certain paygrades.

For example, Navy Achievement Medals could not be presented to Lieutenant Commanders or above. Nearly every award was presented upon the completion of a tour of duty, and certain jobs had an expected award attached. A successful tour as the commanding officer of a destroyer or frigate resulted in a Meritorious Service Medal, while a department head on the same ship received a Navy Commendation Medal.

Most highly prized were “spot” awards, so-called as they were presented mid-tour for a specific act or achievement. All three of the Navy Achievement Medals I received were “spot” awards, and as such two of them are somewhat special to me. The third, and last, was presented for something I didn’t see as very award-worthy, and I recall being somewhat embarrassed at the time it was pinned on.

* * *

As a Yeoman, division officer and then department head, I wrote many, many, many award recommendations, ranging from the lofty Legion of Merit to mundane letters of appreciation. The Navy Awards Manual provided templates and guidelines, and it became fairly simple to me to put together a package with all the right points highlighted. As with so many things, the way awards were handled changed dramatically during my Navy career.

Napoleon is famously quoted as saying he could get men to do anything for a piece of colorful ribbon, and I saw the truth in that many times. In addition to personal recognition, awards became a very important ingredient in officer promotions and enlisted advancement. For officers and chief petty officers, not receiving the appropriate level of award at the end of a tour became like having LOOK VERY CLOSELY AT THIS PERSON’S RECORD tattooed to the forehead. For Sailors, personal awards added points to their advancement score and every point mattered when selection quotas decreased as the Navy contracted after the Cold War.

Over time, the competition for awards, especially the prized “spot” type, diminished their meaning and degraded the entire process. Quotas were set for spot awards based on the size of the command. Instead of recognizing an individual for a specific achievement at the time it happened, the awards were often held until the end of the fiscal year and then each department or division at the command submitted candidates for consideration by a “murder board.” I participated in a few of these, and generally thought the right Sailors ended up receiving awards, but the process was jaded and unpleasant.

Still, standing on principle would only hurt my own Sailors so I played the game — and very well, I think — by the rules in place at the time. Sailors who early in my career would have received a letter of commendation walked away with a medal, and even then a few on occasion complained that it wasn’t the right medal. These Sailors usually received a few choice words from me behind closed doors about what they would have gotten in the “good old days.”

* * *

One memory of those good old days involved Rear Admiral Jeremy Boorda, who as Chief of Naval Operations, the top officer in the Navy, would commit suicide. Admiral Boorda’s suicide would be linked to medals and ribbons, but at the time I first met him he was a two-star commanding Cruiser-Destroyer Group 8, which Destroyer Squadron 10 was part of.

Admiral Boorda started as an enlisted Sailor, and he was extremely popular with “white hats” throughout his career as an officer. A strong proponent of Sailors taking advantage of the educational programs offered through the Navy, he reinstated the “Seaman To Admiral” program that he himself had benefited from.

As an admiral he took the time to talk to Sailors wherever he was, often not standing on ceremony by seeking them out in their work spaces. When this happened he overlooked protocol mistakes made by nervous men and women surprised to see a flag officer in their midst.

Admiral Boorda was also well-known for another habit: handing out medals on the spot. If he saw something or someone that pleased him, an innovative way of doing something, an idea that saved money or time, or a junior Sailor doing the job of someone more senior, like as not he would turn to an aide and say “This Sailor gets a Navy Achievement Medal. Do the paperwork.”

In fact, the first time I saw Admiral Boorda in person he did just that. As commander of Cruiser-Destroyer Group 8 he stopped by the Destroyer Squadron 10 headquarters for a briefing, which included the news that one of our staff members, Chief Nichols — his first name escapes me after all these years — had been instrumental in getting a ship through a rigorous inspection. No one on the waterfront gave the ship in question a chance at passing, but Chief Nick, as we called him, lived onboard for a month, training the crew and going through their records until the program was spotless.

Admiral Boorda pointed at Chief Nick and said “Navy Achievement Medal,” and I did the paperwork for his signature during a later break.

* * *

One of the darkest days I can recall during my service in the Navy was hearing of Admiral Boorda’s suicide. A former Army officer named David Hackworth, who was working for Newsweek magazine, had started an investigation into whether or not the admiral was entitled to wear a “V” device denoting valor on two of his medals, which were awarded during the Vietnam War.

The crux of the issue was whether the award citations specifically denoted the wearing of the “V” devices, as they needed to; Hackworth was himself highly decorated and evidently he took umbrage with what he considered a falsehood perpetuated by the Navy’s top officer.

After Admiral Boorda’s death it was determined the devices were indeed not authorized in writing, but that was not unusual. Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, who was Chief of Naval Operations during Vietnam, recalled in a letter filed in Boorda’s service record that he gave oral instructions during visits to dozens of ships and shore stations authorizing the wearing of such devices for duty in the combat zone of Vietnam.

But for a man who prided himself on integrity and professionalism, for having pulled himself from the bottom of the Navy to the very top, the accusations were damaging. Making matters worse, the Navy was still emerging from the Tailhook scandal, and the admiral evidently worried about more negative press attaching itself to the sea service. He wrote two suicide notes, one for the Navy and one for his wife, but neither have been released.

Napoleon was certainly right. There is no telling what those colored ribbons can get people to do.

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