Navy Authorizes Combat Awards for Sailors in the Red Sea Following Months of Attacks by Houthi Rebels

Sailors assigned to the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Carney (DDG 64) stand watch
Sailors assigned to the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Carney (DDG 64) stand watch in the ship’s Combat Information Center during an operation to defeat a combination of Houthi missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles, Oct. 19, 2023. (Aaron Lau/U.S. Navy)

Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro has decided that sailors operating in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden will be eligible for combat awards and devices for any actions that they have performed since Oct. 19, when violence spiked due to the Israel-Hamas war and Houthi rebels began drone and missile attacks.

As the Pentagon publicly argued that the U.S. military had not been pulled into a wider conflict in the Middle East, Navy officials said sailors and crews have downed nearly 200 drones and missiles in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden since Oct. 19 and conducted strikes on more than 400 targets in Yemen since Jan. 11.

"Since Oct. 19, our ships, aircraft and those who operate them have performed with exceptional professionalism and dedication -- our Navy and Marine Corps are integral to our economic and national security," Del Toro said in a statement released Wednesday about authorizing the awards and devices.

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The move serves to recognize the valor of sailors and service members under fire, but it also underscores some of the lack of transparency and shifting arguments that military leaders have employed since the shooting began last fall.

The naval administrative message that accompanied the announcement said that sailors and units will now be eligible for the Combat Action Ribbon, as well as personal military decorations that include the "V" and "C" devices and the Air Medal that includes the Strike/Flight device.

The message also allows service members to earn the "R" or "Remote Impact" device for "direct hands-on impact on combat operations and engagements" that "did not expose the individual to hostile action."

The area outlined in the message covers the entirety of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, as well as the area over Yemen and 50 to 100 miles of shoreline in the countries that border the Red Sea.

A Navy spokesman said that, because many of the awards included in the message are intended for discrete and one-off engagements, Del Toro's message is a way to allow ships and sailors who have dealt with a continuous stream of hostile actions to be recognized for their valor and achievements.

Current counts suggest that Houthi militants have attacked or threatened U.S. Navy and commercial vessels 129 times since Nov. 19, and there have been 50 self-defense strikes against Iranian-backed Houthis, who have aligned with Hamas and claimed the attacks are meant to hamper Israel's war effort in Gaza.

As a result, some service members have already been recognized for their actions. However, the Navy and leadership at U.S. Central Command have been tight-lipped about sharing any details about what those awards contain.

In January 2024, the crew of the destroyer USS Carney was awarded the Combat Action Ribbon for their actions on Dec. 16 when the ship shot down 14 Houthi drones in the Red Sea.

On Dec. 11, Gen. Erik Kurilla, the head of U.S. Central Command, flew out to the Carney to present awards to many of the sailors aboard the ship -- including a Bronze Star for the commander. has repeatedly requested the details of those awards, but those requests have gone unanswered.

Some Navy officials have cited operational security as the reason why even basic details like the citation for the Carney's Combat Action Ribbon award have not been made public.

However, the combat awards also clashed with early assurances from Navy and Pentagon officials that suggested U.S. ships were not being targeted and, thus, helped tamp down calls for stronger retaliation against the Houthis and their sponsors in Iran.

For example, in talking with reporters in early January, Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, head of the Navy's Central Command at the time, said that there was "no specific information that any U.S. ship has been directly targeted."

Some details that have emerged -- like a missile coming within a mile of the USS Gravely -- also suggest that ships in the area are in far greater danger than officials have been willing to admit.

The latest action in the Red Sea occurred Wednesday when, according to U.S. Central Command, American forces "successfully engaged and destroyed four airborne unmanned aerial vehicles over Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen" after it was determined that they "presented an imminent threat to U.S., coalition and merchant vessels in the region."

Related: Danger for Sailors Grows as Houthi Missile Gets Within 1 Mile of Destroyer USS Gravely

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