March 18, 2016:
There has been growing discontent in the U.S. military because of the Department of Defense policy of not releasing to the public the official descriptions ("narratives") of what many soldiers did to receive medals. This especially applies to two of the three highest awards; the Silver Star (number 3) and the Distinguished Service Cross (number 2). There are very few Medals of Honor awarded, and the military does not restrict access to the narratives for these. Since September 11, 2001, all military personnel receiving Silver Stars and Distinguished Service Crosses had their names, where the heroic event took place and the home town of the recipient made public but often the narratives were classified and withheld.
Since 2001 nearly 1,100 of the top three medals have been awarded and about 20 percent of them were classified special operations missions where the details of these awards ("narratives") are still secret. Over half of all the top three awards were given since 2008 and most of those were to special operations troops. This reflects the fact that more of the actual fighting is being done by special operations personnel, who comprise only about five percent of all combat troops (who get nearly all the top three awards).
A growing number of military personnel, and civilians, are pressuring the Department of Defense to change their policy. Some members of Congress have threatened to enact laws to force the release of these narratives. There is currently no law restricting public access to these narratives. The military insist they are keeping the narratives secret in order to protect the privacy of troops receiving these awards, and for operational security (not letting the enemy know of secret military techniques). Active duty troops and veterans generally consider this nonsense and blame the "cover your ass" attitude in the Pentagon for the policy. It has also been pointed out that some individuals received a Silver Star or Distinguished Service Cross rather than a Medal of Honor because the event in question was classified and details would have to be made public. The military is now reviewing all the classified Silver Star or Distinguished Service Cross recipients to see which should be upgraded to Medal of Honor.
Awards like this have been around since antiquity and until recently one function of the awards was to publicize the details of what military heroes have to go through. The Romans had a number of these awards and the point of it all was to publicly honor those who did extraordinary things in combat. Napoleon Bonaparte is credited with reviving the practice in modern times, and he was quick to note that publicizing these things was important. But times have changed, or have they?
One thing has not changed and that is the rate at which lower level medals are given. The U.S. Army has awarded nearly 900,000 medals to the 1.5 million soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's about half as many medals awarded during World War II, when five times as many soldiers served overseas. It's also a third of those awarded during Vietnam, where twenty percent more soldiers served. This odd pattern is the result of the excessive number of medals given out during the Vietnam War.
This has not been forgotten. In 2005 American troops began grumbling about what was perceived as disrespectful use of Bronze Star medals as "attaboy" awards for officers and senior NCOs who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, or for lower ranking personnel you want to pin a medal on for no good reason, like giving a roadside bomb victim, who was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, something in addition to a Purple Heart. This inflation tends to be less with the higher awards, especially the Medal of Honor, as events leading to receiving these are extensively investigated and often publicized widely.
This awards inflation was a very unpopular aspect of the Vietnam War, and became a major embarrassment after the 1983 Grenada invasion where the army tried to award more medals than there were troops involved. The public caught wind of it and forced the brass to back off. It was feared that another such scandal appears to be brewing. Compared to World War II, that is what is happening. The only good news is that it is not as bad as it was during Vietnam.
In the American military, awards for valor go from the Bronze Star (which can also be awarded for non-combat accomplishment), the Silver Star, the Distinguished Service Cross and the Medal of Honor. There are also several lesser awards for non-combat service, plus the Purple Heart for those wounded or killed in combat.