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Lt. Wade Zirkle nominated one of his Marines for the Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest valor award, shortly after the Marine used his own body to shield a buddy from a grenade blast in Fallujah in 2004.
By the time the medal was approved and awarded, nearly two years later, Zirkle and his Marine, Lance Cpl. Benjamin Gonzalez, had already left the Corps. In two other cases, he nominated Marines for Bronze Stars for valor -- one posthumously -- only to see those roll slowly through the system, as well.
“The Marine Corps does a lot of things very well,” Zirkle said. “Managing a bureaucracy is not one of its strengths.”
For that reason, Zirkle said he was glad to learn that Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos has instituted changes for speeding up the awards process. These changes include deadlines intended to get most decorations acted on within six months of nomination, and handing off approval authority for medals up through the Bronze Star to lower command levels.
“If you give a Marine a deadline, things get done,” said Zirkle, who served in Iraq with 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment. “In a world without deadlines, no one is held accountable.”
While the impetus for the new rules is to enable Silver Star and Navy Cross recommendations to reach Headquarters Marine Corps within six months of the combat action, the new rules will also apply to other medals awarded with a valor, or “V” device, including the Air Medal and the Bronze Star.
Under the new policy, an officer has 45 days from the time he learns of a Marine’s or sailor’s heroic actions to enter a complete and documented award recommendation into the system to the next commander in the reporting chain.
The endorsing commander then has 21 days to either act on the recommendation and forward it to a senior endorser or approval authority, or he must refer it back to the originating officer or junior commander if there are problems or discrepancies that need to be addressed.
If there’s any problem with meeting the timelines, the officers and commanders need to include an explanation for the delay.
"The Commandant wants all Silver Star and Navy Cross recommendations to reach [Headquarters Marine Corps] as soon as possible after the action, but no later than 6 months," said Maj. Shawn Haney, a spokeswoman for Marine Corps Manpower and Reserve Affairs, in an email. "Anything else is not following our Marine Corps ethos of 'taking care of Marines.' "
Amos has not only sped up the approval process for valor, he has also extended approval authorities for the medals up through the Bronze Star for valor.
Now, the commander of Marine Special Operations Command may approve Bronze Star for valor nominations, and the head of Marine Forces Central Command may delegate that same approval authority to the Marine Air-Ground Task Force commander in Afghanistan.
Haney said this will mean faster approval times for all awards. The lower-level awards can be approved without going all the way up to the higher echelons, thereby clearing those command decks to focus on reviewing and adjudicating the Silver Star and Navy Cross nominations.
The new policies on awards do not apply to Medal of Honor nominations.
Earlier problems with delays resulted in the Corps instituting a system in 2009 designed to make the process faster. Those changes even included ending a requirement for eyewitness statements for Navy and Marine Corps Commendation and Achievement medals for valor -- a move taken to expedite the vetting of higher-level awards such as the Air Medal and Bronze Star Medal.
The changes helped, but not to the degree the Corps hoped.
For Silver Stars approved during 2011, the average time from date of action for the award recommendation reaching Headquarters Marine Corps was more than seven months, Haney said. The average time was longer than 11 months for Navy Cross recommendations.
Haney said the six-month turnaround time was already the Corps’ goal, but many took longer because of delays with the originating officer or mistakes by endorsers that resulted in the paperwork being kicked back for correction.
Amos believes that 45 days is enough time for an officer making a recommendation to pull together all the necessary facts, eyewitness statements and other supporting documentation to write up a complete and accurate award nomination, Haney said.
Officials expect the majority of nominations to be submitted much sooner than 45 days, she said.
Zirkle said no system is ever going to be perfect, but he hopes the changes Amos implemented do get Marines their awards sooner.
The quicker an award can be presented to a deserving Marine after the combat the better it is for everyone. The Marine is more likely to still be in the unit, or at least in uniform, and the unit itself gets something out of the presentation.
Getting the award too late “is a bit like wishing somebody a Happy Birthday a month after the birthday,” Zirkle said. “It’s still nice to hear it, but it doesn’t have the same impact that it would at the time.”