June 25, 2016:
In early 2916 the U.S. Army awarded Combat Action Badges to some cavalry (reconnaissance) troops from the 101st Airborne Division who had been fired on while guarding a military base at Mahkmour in northern Iraq. American and Iraqi troops are operating out of that base, which is close to the fighting with ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) forces. These recon troops actually operate light (OH-58) scout helicopters and before 2006 would not have been awarded a medal to signify they had been in combat.
All that changed after 2001 and by 2011 the army finally sorted out the rules for who got the three awards now available for this who experienced combat. These were the Combat Infantry, Combat Medical and Combat Action Badges. The most recent of these, the Combat Action Badge (CAB) appeared in 2006, and has come to, combined with the Combat Medical Badge, nearly equal the number of Combat Infantry Badges awarded. By 2011 39 percent of the badges awarded were CABs, 10 percent were Combat Medical Badge (CMBs) and 51 percent were Combat Infantry Badges (CIBs). Since 2011 the percentage of CIBs has gone down and the percentage of CABs have gone up as the United States pulled most of its infantry units out of combat situations.
The CAB took an odd route to becoming an official award. Back in 2006, after years of effort by the other combat arms, the army relented and created a “Close Combat Badge” (CCB) for troops in armored, cavalry, combat engineering and field artillery units. Since World War II, the infantry have been eligible for the “Combat Infantry Badge” (CIB) if they serve in an infantry unit, as infantry, in a combat zone, for at least 30 days (or less is killed or wounded in action).
Holders of the CIB are much respected in the army. This is because the CIB indicates someone who has not just seen a little combat, but has spent time in the combat zone. The CIB represents having gone through sustained combat, the day after day of getting shot at and living very rough indeed. Sustained combat is a recent development, seen on a wide scale for the first time during World War I (1914-18). This continued during World War II. Sustained combat not only increased the chance of getting killed or wounded, but also gave us more combat fatigue (PTSD).
Troops in armored, cavalry, combat engineering and field artillery units, overall, suffer only a fraction of the casualties infantrymen do. But these other “combat arms” do get hammered much more than everyone else in the army. Even during World War II, 75 percent of the people in the army never heard a shot fired in anger. But the non-infantry combat units sometimes see more intense combat than the infantry, such as when combat engineers get out in front of the infantry to clear minefields and obstacles during a attack on well defended positions.
But overall, the infantry have always suffered most of the casualties (about 80 percent in the last century.) But that has been slowly changing. In Iraq, for a while the infantry were taking less than half the casualties. Many artillery and armor units were temporarily reassigned (after some refresher training) to infantry duties (mainly patrolling.) This is nothing new. During World War II, tanks often served with infantry units. When a tank got hit, most of the crew usually survived, and got out of the vehicle uninjured. They were then expected to "fight as infantry", at least until a new tank was available for them or their damaged tank was repaired. Artillerymen keep their infantry skills up to date, and regularly set up defensive positions when they are in the field. In World War II, artillery units sometimes got hit by enemy infantry, or enemy artillery. Despite all this, these men have never been eligible for anything like the CIB.
Finally, in 2005, the army announced the CCB. There were a lot of protests from the army troops who had been in combat and would NOT be getting the CCB. These included those who ran convoys through hostile territory and get involved in fighting. The Military Police (MP) units that escort convoys, and have long been present in combat zones (and getting killed as a result) were never included among the combat arms. In past conflicts, truck drivers and MPs have been in combat zones and been involved in combat. But, again, never to the degree of the infantry, or, except in rare situations, the other combat arms. Moreover, the convoy battles in Iraq and Afghanistan used tactics that tried to avoid close combat. Troops are taught to step on the gas if they come under fire, although if forced to stop, they are also taught how to get out and shoot at the enemy. But overall, most of the firefights over there involve American infantry, doing what they were trained to do.
In the end, the army agreed to award the renamed (as the CAB) CCB badge to all those who had been in combat. This included Special Forces troops who are not infantry, but have been in combat. Not awarding a combat badge to these troops has been a matter of dispute for decades. A more recent change gave Special Forces medics the CIB, instead of the CMB. Little tweaks like this address those things that annoy hard working troops you would prefer to keep in a good mood.
Awards like this go back to antiquity, as a way to recognizing extraordinary performance in combat. 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.