Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Mystery of the Phantom Army Commendation Medal

 The Army Commendation Medal is awarded to any member of the Armed Forces of the United States other than General Officers who, while serving in any capacity with the U.S. Army after December 6, 1941, distinguished themselves by heroism, meritorious achievement or meritorious service.

A couple of weekends ago, I opened up my old army footlocker that had been stowed away in the attic for years and began digging through the contents. Not long before that, my wife had sent me up there to find one of her most precious kitchen appliances that she desperately needed for the upcoming culinary experiments she was about inflict on the family. During my time looking for her motorized utensil, a curious looking instrument that looks disturbingly similar to devices used during the Spanish Inquisition, I saw my footlocker tucked away in a far off corner.

Upon seeing the box I immediately thought of myself as a suburban Indiana Jones exploring a tomb that had been buried and then forgotten for centuries and quickly dodged all sorts of imaginary booby traps and disgruntled natives to safely getaway with the artifact. In truth, I almost killed myself lugging the damn box down the attic ladder but that doesn't sound as good as me playing the intrepid tomb raider. Once free of possible spousal interference I moved the box to the bedroom and opened it up.

I had literally forgotten what I had stowed away inside the thing and spent several minutes emptying it out while sorting the contents on the floor. It was mostly military paperwork stuff from my mediocre career, several books that at one time I had felt the need to keep, and other minor mementos such as a collection of pictures from those years.

One of the first things I saw once I lifted the lid was my active army DD-214 which lists all the details of the four years I played full-time soldier. A vital piece of my past, but my attention was quickly drawn to a few of the photographs from that same period that I should have destroyed long ago.. These photos showed a side of my behavior that would surely confound my wife and children if they ever saw them. A good many people in my family tend to think I have always been a mild-mannered guy who preferred a good book or movie to the life of a twenty-something party animal.

Figuring continued discretion was far better than anyone seeing these odd examples of my younger days, I moved quickly to hide the photos until I was ready to again store the footlocker away. During that time my daughter, Darth Wiggles, found my DD-214 and started reading the information listed on the paper.

My daughter asked me several questions concerning the information on the DD-214 including the part listing the various awards I had earned. Given that this covered my active army years during peacetime, the list was not all that impressive except for one.

“Daddy,” my daughter began while still looking at the form, “what did you do to earn the Army Commendation Medal?”

Now this is where we begin to delve in a real mystery. “Sweetie,” I remembering the first time I noticed that strange item, “that is a long and complex story.”


My active duty enlistment ended in July of 1990 and while I had ultimately earned the rank of sergeant (E-5) a combination of things had made me to decided to leave the army and take another path in my life. The first was that my grandfather had recently passed away and I simply wanted to go home and start college. The second was that the Cold War was over and peace and love were breaking out all over the world.

What that last statement meant was that both the president and congress at the time were already talking about cutting the size of the military to save money and while I was good soldier I had absolutely no desire to get caught up bureaucratic bloodbath that was about to take place. To break it down even further, since warm international fuzzies were floating through the halls of power everywhere there was going to be far too many soldiers in the army without a real reason to wear the uniform. Of course, all that was preempted in August of that year when our good friend Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait causing Daddy Bush to begin the largest mobilization and deployment since the Second World War, but I didn't know that in July of 1990.

One of the last things you have to do to out process from the army at Fort Carson was visit the Personnel Service Center1. It was there that the final paperwork was processed allowing someone to rejoin the civilian ranks, and one of those valuable forms was my DD-214.

It was getting late in the afternoon on a Friday when I finally got a chance to review my DD-214. Since I was never one to even consider being a “PX warrior2” I immediately notified the cute young lady handling my case that there was an award on the DD-214 that I had never earned. Having an unearned Army Commendation Medal on my record was something I wanted corrected but I ran into a rather huge issue.

“Yeah, if you never received the award it needs to be taken off,” the cute brunette said looking at the form while sitting at her desk. “The only problem with having it removed is that the guy who does that left early and we will all be off Monday, so you'd have to come back Tuesday morning.” She told me as I stared into her ice blue eyes.

Long story short, before she and I got down to business we had spent twenty minutes talking and I was getting an overwhelming vibe that she had a personal interest in me. Had we met any other time during my stay at Fort Carson I would have quickly asked her out but that bitch bad timing was once again playing hell with me getting laid. First and foremost, as of that day I was no longer a soldier which meant I had no real reason being on post and secondly, my youngest brother would be arriving at Colorado Springs airport in a couple of hours to ride home with me in my car.

Cute brunette notwithstanding, not only was I sure my brother would immediately want to get on the road heading home, I had no real strong desire to hang around until Tuesday only to spend hours at the PSC to have them fix some paperwork they screwed up in the first place. Then again, I admit the way that brunette was looking at me along with her alluring smile I often think I made a huge mistake. We continued to talk for several minutes all the time knowing I couldn't ask my brother to hang out at a motel for the weekend while the brunette and I hung out at her apartment playing energetic doctors with each other. So I grudgingly left after we both figured I could get the DD-214 corrected at the National Guard unit I would be joining.

Well, that didn't happen either for several reasons. The main one being that once I returned home to South Carolina I had a dozen other things on my must-do list like getting registered for college and cruising Myrtle Beach's, infamous Ocean Boulevard looking for a replacement for the brunette chick back at Fort Carson. Hindsight being twenty-twenty, I really should have asked the unit clerk at my national guard unit to look into that award.

About ten years later I got a call from my national guard unit saying that I had enough promotion points to make staff sergeant. These points came from a whole range of things like PT score, MOS competency tests, weapons qualification, and of course, all my awards. As you might be able to guess, to make the required points my phantom Army Commendation Medal had to be included in the calculation.

When I told the unit clerk about my curious situation the dude's head about exploded. People who have the dubious job of managing army paperwork for a unit have to deal with a stress level on par with someone working as an air traffic controller for a major airport. Not only do they have to contend with both active duty and state level bureaucratic red tape, a whole spectrum of regulations, but they have all sorts of part-timers coming in and whining about stupid shit like mysterious awards on their DD-214.

Despite it all, the unit clerk said he would research the origins of my Army Commendation Medal to make sure it would be included in my promotion packet. To help him narrow things down the clerk began asking me questions as to what I might have done to have someone fill out all the convoluted paperwork required for such an award. There was literally only one instance that might explain how that award ended on my record.


For you civilians I need to do a brief introduction to one aspect of army life. Most everyone with an IQ over 70 should understand that members of the American armed forces fall into three categories. The first are officers like lieutenants, majors, colonels, and assorted generals. The second group, under the officers, are called non-commissioned officers more widely known as various types of sergeants. Lastly are the enlisted which to keep things simple run from private (E-1), the lowest of the low, to a glorified rank called specialist (E-4). No, you don't want me to explain the rank of specialist, nor the history that lead to its creation. Just understand that those soldiers I've classified as enlisted are the guys and gals at the bottom of the hill who receive all the proverbial shit that rolls down that steep slope.

In each army unit there is a senior officer and a senior non-commissioned officer. While at Fort Carson I served in the air defense battalion whose task it was to protect all the dumb ass tankers, cannon cockers, infantry grunts, and assorted support troops in the Fourth Infantry Division from all those nasty aircraft the commies would throw at us if the balloon went up.

This is where I introduce the senior non-commissioned officer of my battalion, Command Sergeant Major Robert Davis of Detroit, Michigan. CSM Davis is/was a mountain of man who after growing up in the Detroit slums went on join the army and serve two combat tours in Vietnam. This man was so bad ass if a movie were to be made about him Samuel L. Jackson might have just enough force of personality to play him. To say freshly minted second lieutenants fresh out of ROTC, West Point, or OCS were terrified of him would be a criminal understatement. This guy was so tough there was a rumor that CSM Davis came down so hard on one second lieutenant that tried to correct him once that the young man eventually ran off crying and tried to resigned his commission the next day.

Yes, CSM Davis was a mean SOB who absolutely came down like a ton of bricks on any soldier that he felt was not living to army standards. On the other hand, with his combat experience and years of service if I had to go to war he was the man to follow. Even with his experience, expertise, and obvious accomplishments CSM Davis did have his flaws. The one that blared out to any unbiased observer was that for his personal entourage he surrounded himself with stereotypical “yes men.” I discovered this the one time I got invited to one of Davis' enlisted soldier meetings that overflowed with snacks and beer. When CSM Davis told a joke the members of his entourage all laughed precisely at the moment he finished talking and almost surgically stopped thirty seconds later.

Call me slow, but I usually have to run the joke through my head for a second or two and believe it or not my delay to laugh was noticed by Davis. “What's wrong Private Johnson,” he asked me as I not only didn't laugh quick enough but stopped before the rest of the group.

Seeing the look on his face, I quickly answered nothing at all and tried to play along. No, once the meeting was over I was never invited back again. It didn't bother me, not saying I'm special but I've never been one to go along with a group just to fit in with others. While not becoming a member of the sergeant major's entourage, I nevertheless continued to play soldier and went about my normal duties. Not to sound paranoid there were times though whenever I was around CSM Davis that I got the feeling he was giving me dirty looks.

The second curious thing about CSM Davis, which has an important part to play in this story, was his total opposition to awarding Army Commendation Medals. The way he explained it was that with it being peacetime, this being the mid-1980's, as far as he was concerned one of the troops in his battalion would only receive one of those award once that soldier proved he could walk on water. Being true to his word, as long as he was in the battalion CSM Davis shot down every attempt to award an Army Commendation Medal to anyone. Which makes the one that showed up on my records all the more strange.

One of the things air defense types like me did for training was to have live fire exercises where we got to shoot the various weapons systems our battalion had in its inventory. There was one particular live fire that was especially fun for me and six other guys because we got to shoot the Stinger missile.

The Stinger missile looks sort of like the old bazooka from World War Two and uses an infrared tracking system in the head to “see” and catch aircraft before it explodes. Even in the 1980's it was a fantastic weapon as numerous Russian pilots found out in the skies over Afghanistan once it blew up their helicopter or jet. Since we didn't have any Russian aircraft to shoot down like Afghan fighters, we had to settle for live fire exercises using what the army called called ballistic aerial targets (called Bats) that in actuality were just glorified bottle rockets.

The Bat would be launched into the sky with the Stinger gunner going through the various procedures to activate, lock-on, and then fire the weapon with the missile being boosted out of the tube several meters before the main rocket motor ignited.

Of course, unless we're talking really big rockets what goes up into the sky has to eventually come down. Especially when the Stingers missile hit the target Bat causing it to rain down in flaming pieces to start numerous fires downrange. Making things even more fun was that during the live fire I got to shoot my missile that summer had been hot and dry giving all the vegetation an excuse to explode into the flames.

By the time the exercise was over there was enough smoke rising up into the sky to clearly give the impression we had serious wildfire developing. My platoon sergeant, SFC Blackledge, seeing something had to be done fast grabbed every soldier he saw and loaded us up into trucks with the purpose of going downrange to fight the fires. Not only was I one of the soldiers grabbed but also the sergeant major's driver, a Specialist Padget, who looked upon his chauffeur job as a blessing since it usually meant he never spent more than a couple of hours out in the field. See, Padget was man ahead of his time in many way, not only was he an expert ass kissing yes man but his delicate nature and excessive concern over hair gels and clean hands made him a poster child for the metrosexual movement decades before the concept was ever invented. No he wasn't secretly gay, if anything the guy had women crawling over him but I had absolutely no idea why someone so worried about getting dirty ever joined the army.

In addition to being a yes man, Padget tended to look down on everyone else who was his rank or lower. With that type of attitude it made him quite popular with everyone having to live with the twit. It was generally known that Padget's attitude came from being raised in a upper middle class suburb somewhere outside Los Angeles. This upbringing had somehow translated into believing people from other regions of the country were somewhat deficient. But the great thing about being the sergeant major's driver meant no one would ever say anything about his behavior.

Once we reach the first of the fires, SFC Blackledge had everyone grab shovels, axes, and these weird things that looked like giant fly swatters and start trying to get things under control.

“Wait a second, Johnson,” Blackledge said to me as I was about to run off carrying a shovel. “I need someone to stay with the truck and listen to radio, Range Control has a helicopter with a water bucket coming in and we need to know when they will drop.”

That one statement bummed the the living shit out of me. I had grown far more excited about fighting the fires that I can easily explain and wanted to do my part in the emerging battle. Thankfully Specialist Padget was still hovering around and in a backhanded way did me a favor.

“I'll stay with the radio,” he said with a clearly wavering and uncertain voice.

SFC Blackledge was not a man to be trifled with and even though everyone was immediately needed to bring the fires under control he wanted to know why Padget was volunteering, something he positively never did anywhere or anytime. “Why do you want to stay with the radio Padget? He asked while staring at the poor excuse of privileged suburban upbringing.

“It's because I'm scared, sergeant,” Padget blurted out in an honesty that caused SFC Blackledge to shake his head in dismay.

“Johnson, go ahead and join up with the others,” Blackledge said to me, “young Padget and myself are going to have a conversation.”

For the next four hours I had one of the best times in my life. Not only did I get to play wilderness fire fighter but was on the receiving end of several water dumps from helicopters and a fixed wing aircraft. Yeah, this will be a total dick thing to write, but I would be lying if I said I didn't enjoy seeing Padget in what looked like serious trouble.

After things calmed down, SFC Blackledge gathered everyone in the fire fighting detail together to board the vehicles for the ride back to the unit. About the same time CSM Davis' vehicle appeared with Blackledge immediately walking over to talk with the Davis. SFC Blackledge then called Padget over to the sergeant major who dismissed the guy temporarily filling in as his driver, thus beginning an epic ass chewing. Once or twice during this impromptu disciplinary discussion, Blackledge pointed over in my direction with the sergeant major also studying me like one might a new type of bacteria.

As with anything these days, the whole affair was soon totally forgotten. The entire battalion went back to the usual training with Padget returning to his cushy job as the sergeant major's driver, although it was clear the relationship between those two was clearly strained. All the Stinger gunners for that live fire, including me, received a minor award for our efforts. Proving the old army adage that when you screw up, you move up Padget was eventually promoted to the rank of sergeant, far earlier than normal, and got another cushy job up at division headquarters.

All I can figure about that Army Commendation Medal is that maybe CSM Davis was so pissed off at Padget's cowardice that he put me in for the award as a way to punish his ass kissing driver. Believe it or not, this sort of makes sense since CSM Davis was the type of person to screw with a soldier but since I was not part of his entourage he could have easily just forgot about the whole episode as the days and weeks passed.

In the long run it didn't matter, the clerk at my national guard unit could never find any documentation concerning the award so it couldn't be used for my promotion to staff sergeant. But on the other hand, it was never removed from the copy of my DD-214 I received when I retired from the national guard in 2005. So where it came from I haven't a clue, this minor mystery did bother me once with the only alternative I can think of is that it was a simple foul up by some bored paper pusher.   

1Before some authority freaks out I'm not entirely sure that is the right name for the place that in-processed arriving soldiers and out processed those like me. I have simply forgotten the name but Personnel Service Center is close.
2A PX warrior or PX soldier is a sorry ass piss ant that purchases awards and special badges to wear on their uniform while never having earned them. During my time in the army being caught do such a thing could get a person in severe trouble. From what I've heard to pull a stunt like now the consequences are far worse now.


Pixel Peeper said...

Personnel Service Center...was it called RPC (regional personnel center?), or am I remembering it wrong?

Did you tell your daughter the entire story?

And, no, don't throw out those old pictures!

Unknown said...

This is a great story. I like the idea that youi sort of hauled the story piece by piece out of the foot locker.

I used to have to send off for DD-214s for clients at an old job I had. All I know about them is that you send off to Missouri for them.

sage said...

I once wanted to go into the military when I graduated high school, so I took Jr ROTC and that cured me. Sometimes I wish I had gone in, but when I read your story I remember that I'd have a hard time keeping my mouth shut and saluting officers that I felt inferior to me even though they had shinny pieces of metal on their collars.

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

Unfortunately, there's a good reason military dudes use the SNAFU acronym. I'm not surprised about the error. My hubby was awarded a bronze star when he was in Nam, but because somebody screwed up about putting the paperwork through, he never got the medal. Not that he cares. The CIB has more meaning to him.

The Bug said...

I don't know - I think I'd be asking anyone who would listen for my actual medal. I like stuff :)

Akelamalu said...

Thanks for the insight into the US Military.