But the reality is that over the last seventy years there have been more and more awards for non-combat efforts that have bumped into combat awards, particularly in the air force. The air force began this with the freely awarded Distinguished Flying Cross, which often went to pilots in non-combat operations. The air force considered all flying dangerous and this was once true. But it no longer is and only a few pilots have been lost in combat in the last decade. Many more airmen have died from convoy ambushes, roadside bombs, and attacks on bases down below. There, thousands of airmen served temporarily with the shorthanded army and often found themselves shooting back and in much more combat than the fighter pilots far above. While the ground fighting had gotten less lethal, air combat had become even safer because of the lack of enemy air power or ground fire that could reach warplanes dropping smart bombs.
The army experienced this trend as well with the Soldiers medal, which outranks the Bronze Star (which, without the “V” for valor, is awarded for non-combat achievement) and recognizes risking your life in a non-combat situation. The Distinguished Warfare Medal will rank above the Soldiers Medal and below the Distinguished Flying Cross. The army considers the Distinguished Flying Cross a non-combat award unless with a “V” attached. The army never uses the V for the Distinguished Flying Cross, as something of a dig at the air force freely handing out their Distinguished Flying Cross for non-combat operations.
All this can be seen in the way all these medals are ranked. The highest awards are the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross and Silver Star. These area all for extraordinary valor under fire. After these three it can get confusing. After the Silver Star comes the Legion of Merit (a non-combat award), the Defense Superior Service Medal (a non-combat award), then the Distinguished Flying Cross (technically a combat awards), and then the Distinguished Warfare Medal (in theory a non-combat award for valor in virtual combat) followed by the Soldiers Medal, the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, and several non-combat wards like the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, Air Medal, Commendation Medal, Achievement Medal, combat action, prisoner of war, readiness medals, and the Good Conduct Medal. Actually, there are still a few more but you get the idea. Note that the different services often have their own names for some awards (like the Distinguished Service Cross, as the army calls it, is the Navy Cross in the navy).
Meanwhile there is the other new award. Over the last seven years all the U.S. military services developed new decorations to recognize non-combat troops who have experienced combat on the ground. This is a result of the large number of non-combat troops who have been in combat because of the extensive attacks on convoys and American bases in Afghanistan and, especially, Iraq. Such attacks are not unique, as there was quite a lot of action against base camps, and supply convoys, during the Vietnam War and earlier conflicts. During World War II combat support troops often were told to grab their rifles and man the fighting line. This was particularly common in the Pacific. But in Iraq there have been weeks where the majority of casualties were among combat support troops. This was unheard of in past wars. So in recognition of that, there are now "Combat Badges" available for non-combat troops in the army, marines, and navy. The U.S. Air Force was the last to agree to offer such an award. Airmen have seen a lot of action defending convoys and bases in Iraq, and even the pilots (normally the only "combat" troops in the air force) are in favor of a badge to recognize the air force role in ground combat. Some pilots would be eligible for this badge. Pilots serve on the ground as air controllers with army combat units. The air controllers communicate with warplanes above and direct attack by aircraft. Earlier the air force thought it had solved the combat badge "problem" by earlier approving a gold border for the Expeditionary Service Ribbon. This ribbon is awarded to airmen who deploy overseas on a combat mission. The gold border would signify that the wearer had spent at least 45 consecutive days "supporting combat operations in a designated combat zone." But the airmen, and air controllers, were still grumbling. So the air force brass agreed to offer a combat badge similar to the one awarded by the other services.
Awards like this go back to antiquity, as a way to recognizing extraordinary performance in combat. But the basic idea was to recognize someone who was getting up close and personal with an armed foe. Back then, the medals, ribbons, or whatever often included money or goods as part of the reward. The ancient Romans had a long list of military awards, both for combat and non-combat performance. Napoleon Bonaparte is credited for reintroducing the awards in the modern period, as a means of motivating his troops to heroic deeds. But military operations have changed over the last century, with more and more support functions needed and fewer troops actually getting shot at. So what becomes extraordinary, and something worth commemorating, must change as well.