Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel handed out a curious-looking award in a curious setting Thursday to the Marine Corps for being the first of the services – ever – to get an audit of its annual budget.
Gen. John Paxton, assistant commandant of the Corps, accepted the award – but with reluctance: He mumbled something, then bolted from the stage at flank speed.
The award itself – nobody knew if it had a name – caused some consternation among the Pentagon's press corps for its enigma-like qualities. It appeared to be a split-screen version of a plaque, with possibly a budget document on one side and fabric in the shape of a giant red letter "Z" on the other. It could not be examined up close, since Paxton had left.
Nary a soul in the building’s vast public affairs operation could immediately say what the giant "Z" or its apparent lettering signified, but they doubted it had anything to do with the mark of "Zorro."
After checking, a Pentagon spokesman said the red "Z" on the Marines' award was believed to be "of no particular significance." The spokesman also said it may have been meant, somehow, to draw attention to the document or whatever it was on the other side.
Anyway, Hagel said the award was important, but even he was puzzled about why he was handing it out in the Pentagon’s “Hall of Heroes,” where the names of the nation’s Medal of Honor recipients are listed. It was a little weird to be standing there for a "bookkeeping accomplishment," he said, "but, damn, this is an accomplishment."
Hagel added, "I want to particularly acknowledge the Marine Corps for what they've done" in validating the fitness of their budget through an audit. "Most Marines, I suspect, don’t think of audits when they think of fitness," he said, but somebody had to do audits and the Marines were the first.
For decades, the services have been working toward getting their annual spending plans in shape for audits – but never actually had one done until the Corps did last year. The Army, Navy and Air Force say they're eager to achieve the financial milestone, maybe by 2017.
In 1990, Congress passed a law requiring the services' budgets to pass official financial inspection, but it was never enforced. Old hands at the Pentagon recalled similar attempts going back to the Carter administration.
When the Marines finally passed an audit late last year, Hagel was ecstatic, or maybe just surprised. "This development marks an important milestone on the path to achieving greater accountability in our financial operations and more effective management of the defense enterprise writ large," Hagel said.
In introducing Hagel, Bob Hale, who will retire later this year as the Pentagon's comptroller, praised the Marines for the accomplishment and said the other services are making "major progress" in balancing their books. It's not easy, Hale said of keeping track of the comings and goings of money at the Pentagon. He likened the effort to "pushing a heavy block across sandpaper."