American veterans care very much about the awards and decorations issued by Congress and the president. That's the lesson I learned earlier this year, when I wrote about 11 Service Decorations Congress Should Create or Bring Back.
The outpouring of responses from readers was overwhelming. Many felt overlooked because dangerous missions they were sent on didn't qualify for certain awards, such as those issued during the Vietnam War. Others were concerned that I'd forgotten the health struggles some Vietnam and Desert Storm veterans still face today -- and that Iraq War veterans are beginning to face.
It doesn't end there. Entire books could be written about stories emailed to me by readers. In my best effort to distill those passed over, here are six more decorations Congress and the Pentagon should consider, as submitted by the military veterans of the United States.
1. Agent Orange Service Medal
When we consider Agent Orange, we tend to think of low-flying aircraft spraying the defoliant over large swathes of Vietnamese jungles. While that certainly happened, there's more to it. U.S. troops would routinely use the chemical on the ground, pumping it by hand from a barrel on the back of a flatbed truck -- with no protective gear.
Veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange have developed non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, prostate cancer, multiple myeloma, Parkinson's disease and ischemic heart disease, to name just a few conditions. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, prostate cancer is the most widespread cancer in the VA system.
Those veterans' names will never appear on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall because they weren't killed in direct action with the enemy, but their lives were never the same.
2. CIA Service Medal
By law, there are some missions a military member cannot perform. When someone in the military does something like, say, violate another country's sovereignty, it's an act of war. When a member of the Central Intelligence Agency does it, however, their actions fall into a legal gray area. If captured, the individual is treated as a criminal but also as an agent of a foreign government. They may be tried for their crime, and further redress would be sought from that government. But no one is going to war over it.
When a military member is permanently transferred to the CIA, an act commonly known as "sheep dipping," their military records become a secret and, for all intents and purposes, they become a veteran. Meanwhile, they still accrue time in grade and time in service, because in reality they're still military members. They just have to go do a secret, likely dangerous, job. Other times, military members are simply lent to the agency for an express purpose.
Well-known examples of military members used by the CIA include Francis Gary Powers, shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960, and U.S. Air Force airmen who supported an insurgency in Laos during the Nixon administration.
3. Central American Service Medal
Long after the Banana Wars of the early 20th century, American troops returned to countries all over South and Central America and the Caribbean in an effort to curb the spread of Communism. During the 1980s, American interventions and support for various factions fighting insurgencies and civil wars put U.S. troops in harm's way on numerous occasions.
The long-term result of U.S. policy in the region isn't a good one. Violence and civil disturbances still persist in many countries in Central America. More often than not, the troops' service is colored by the Iran-Contra scandal of 1985. But the fault doesn't lie with the service members who followed orders, often under fire.
At the very least, Congress should extend the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal to those who trained anti-Communist forces in Honduras.
4. Expanding the Global War on Terror Service Medal
Global terrorism was a problem long before President George W. Bush declared a war on it in 2001. American troops have been on the front lines of this war for much of that time. The 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, and the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania killed hundreds of personnel.
The responses to those terror attacks also involved American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan authorized airstrikes on Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi for his support of international terrorism. President Bill Clinton targeted al-Qaida training sites in Afghanistan in retaliation for the embassy bombings. When Iran illegally mined international waters and the USS Samuel B. Roberts hit one of those mines, the U.S. Navy just wrecked Iran's navy and oil infrastructure.
The armed forces of the United States were icing terrorists long before the war on terror, and they deserve recognition for it.
5. The Order of Sampson
This is not a current award, but rather something the United States could use to heal some of the wrongs of the past. The award would be named for Deborah Sampson, one of many women to fight in combat during the Revolutionary War while dressed as a man. Unlike many women who were discovered in uniform, however, Sampson was not drummed out of the military. Instead, she was honorably discharged by the end of the war.
Throughout the history of the U.S. military, many service members have been given treatment they didn't deserve for reasons that, by today's standards, are unfair and abhorrent. Leonard Matlovich was an outstanding airman and Vietnam veteran who was administratively discharged for being gay. Felix Hall, a black Army private, was lynched during basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia. The list doesn't end there.
During World War II, not one black service member was awarded the Medal of Honor, despite the more than one million black troops who fought in the war. Years later, some received it posthumously, but there were countless candidates.
Awarding recognition to the families of those who served honorably isn't going to make the injustices of the past go away, but it's a good first step toward admitting there was a problem.
6. Walter Reed Medal
The Walter Reed Medal was a Congressional Gold Medal awarded to a team of physicians and willing human test subjects led by Dr. Walter Reed, an Army physician who determined that Yellow Fever was transmitted by mosquitoes. The disease killed thousands of American soldiers during the Spanish-American War.
Congress should revive the medal to encourage doctors and medical researchers to discover potential health hazards to American troops and civilians and eliminate them before they can decimate entire generations of veterans. Imagine health care professionals discovering and preventing exposure to problems such as Agent Orange, Gulf War Syndrome and burn pits before they were able to cripple and kill so many veterans.
-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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