Another benefit of war that looked cool and neat from the outside were the medals and ribbons that we would wear on our dress uniforms. They always looked somehow mysterious and special, like “How did you get that? What do they mean?” Like maybe it was part of a secret club or something. When I was a Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea fan, a fellow fan took a photo of the officers in their dress uniforms and identified all the ribbons. Turned out the prop man just slapped them on. Someone else did it for the TV show JAG.
Outside the military, people think of them almost as colorful prizes. How many times have you heard the phrase “He won the Bronze Star”? You win a prize in a contest. That’s not what happens with medals. A fellow soldier told me the following story after I returned from Desert Storm. I’m guessing it was a Vietnam Veteran, since that would have been about the right timing.
There was an inspection going on in the barracks. A General was doing the inspection, which is a pretty senior rank. He comes to all the rooms, and then finds one that’s just a mess. The bed’s not made up, and everything isn’t the usual dress right dress. The soldier himself looks on the sloppy side.
The General starts going at the soldier. Wordlessly, the soldier opens a wall locker and takes a Medal of Honor off the top shelf. Tosses it on the bed.
The General falls silent, salutes the soldier, pivots and walks out.
Soldiers earn the Medal of Honor because they went fall beyond the call of duty and saved other lives. Most of the time they don’t live to receive the medal.
* * *
After my company came back, the army slowly began transferring people out. Because I was waiting for an assignment in Washington, DC, I was literally the last person from the Desert Storm deployment to leave. I had a lot of ribbons on my rack — five just from the war, plus the unit citation we were awarded as well.
The new privates were transferring in and they would look at these with envy, just like I did before I knew what the cost was. The ribbons look pretty and war changes you forever.