Troops not eligible for campaign medal in fight against ISIS

Greg Nash

The troops President Obama has deployed to Iraq are not eligible for certain medals because the U.S. has not officially designated their efforts a military campaign. 

The more than 1,600 troops who are serving as “advisers” cannot receive the Iraq Campaign Medal, which is reserved for troops deployed between March 19, 2003, and Dec. 31, 2011, defense officials say.

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Nor are they eligible for the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary or Service medals, which are only awarded to troops supporting Operation Enduring Freedom, originating with the 2001 Afghanistan War. 

Veterans groups are upset over the exclusions, arguing the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL) should be treated as an extension of previous military campaigns.

“If that’s not a terrorist organization, and this is not a war against ISIL, then I don’t know what this is,” said John Bircher, spokesman for the Military Order of the Purple Heart, who is also a Vietnam War veteran and Purple Heart recipient. 

Advocates for veterans say the issue needs to be resolved swiftly.

“Having just recently retired, I know how things like this mean to the troops that are out there doing their part. So creating a ribbon, getting something at least started, would be a step in the right direction,” said Navy Cmdr. Daniel Dolan, who is also a professor at the Naval War College. 

The Pentagon says there is a process for medal eligibility. It begins with the military campaign being given an official designation and the combatant commander requesting that the operation be approved for awards.  

“Should U.S. Service members be deployed to Iraq under a new named operation, DOD has policy in place that allows the U.S. Central Command Commander to request the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness approve the new operation for award of the GWOT-[Expeditionary Medal] and GWOT-[Service Medal],” Defense officials told The Hill on June 26.

The ISIS campaign has not yet received an official designation, and one does not appear to be in the works.

“I know of no plans at this point to name it,” Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said last week. 

Defense officials said they are sorting through what awards might be available to the advisers in Iraq.

“The department is currently working with U.S. Central Command regarding awards and decorations for those conducting operations in Iraq and Syria. No decisions have yet been made,” said Pentagon spokesman Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen on Monday. 

Dolan said it was unusual for a military campaign to not have a name at this stage.

“That’s usually one of the first things, you give it a name: Operation Desert Shield, Operation Allied Force, Operation Enduring Freedom. ... I would hope somebody’s working on that as well,” he said. 

“The troops are asking the same question. There are soldiers, sailors, and airmen out there wondering ‘What do we call this?’ ... It would help,” he said, “to give it a bit more meaning for the folks fighting it, if they know it has a particular name and it is recognized as a unique campaign.” 

Dolan said the lack of clarity on medals could reflect the fast-moving nature of U.S. involvement in Iraq, which started in mid-June, with the deployment of 270 troops to provide security for U.S. diplomatic personnel and facilities. 

Today, the U.S. is leading an international coalition against ISIS that has conducted more than 300 airstrikes against targets in Iraq and Syria. 

At the same time, the president has pledged not to send “American combat troops to fight on foreign soil,” leading to confusion over whether the forces are considered “combat troops.” Many of the troops serving there are infantry soldiers and Marines. 

Defense Secretary Chuck HagelChuck HagelCreating a future for vets in DC Republicans back Clinton, but will she put them in Pentagon? There's still time for another third-party option MORE acknowledged that the troops are serving in a combat zone, and defense officials have said they are receiving “combat pay.” 

Administration officials had been reluctant to call the effort against ISIS a war. Obama declined to use the term in an interview Sunday on “60 Minutes,” instead calling it a “counterterrorism” operation.

Lt. Gen. David Barno, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said the administration has acknowledged the U.S. is at war.

“We are conducting lethal combat operations, certainly from the air, against ISIS in two different countries right now, and providing a lot of support to include advisers and potentially [Joint Terminal Attack Controllers] on the ground to help disrupt, destroy and defeat and eventually kill these guys.”

“So that sounds a lot like war to me,” Barno said. 

Bircher said he expects troops injured in Iraq would be eligible for the Purple Heart, even though the awards are reserved for wounds suffered in combat.

Barno said it’s possible the Defense Department could resolve the medal issue with an Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, which it has awarded for limited-duration contingency operations, such as the U.S. military invasions in Grenada and Panama. 

“It remains to be seen which way the Defense Department goes on that,” he said.