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Opinion: Bronze Star License Plates

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October 20, 2016
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Of the roughly 180,000 Bronze Stars awarded during Iraq and Afghanistan, less than 3% were awarded for valor.In Colorado I saw a man driving a car with a “Bronze Star” license plate without the combat "V" device. After going to the DMV and looking through their veteran license plate selection, I knew that there were two Bronze Star plates available : one with a "V," and one without.[caption id="attachment_8573" align="aligncenter" width="300"]

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Source: Pennsylvania DMV[/caption][caption id="attachment_8574" align="aligncenter" width="300"]

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Source: Pennsylvania DMV[/caption]It wasn’t the last time I saw that plate, and every time I did, the car attached to it was usually driven by a middle-aged man or woman, whom I assumed probably received the award during military service in the last few decades.To someone unfamiliar with the military's award system, the Bronze Star might represent heroics: dragging comrades to safety, killing enemy fighters while wounded, stabbing insurgents with an MRE spoon.[caption id="attachment_8572" align="aligncenter" width="683"]

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Source: Department of Defense[/caption]To service members, however, we know the difference: the Bronze Star medal is a common end of tour award for Staff NCO’s and officers, while a Bronze Star awarded with a “V” device denotes a single instance of combat valor.The reality is that the vast majority of Bronze Star awards are awarded as a matter of course. From June 2014 to December 2015 the United States Army awarded 17 Combat Infantryman Badges to troops involved in Operation Inherent Resolve, the military’s name for the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.During this same period of time, for the same operation, the Army awarded 907 Bronze Star medals, without the “V”.Afghanistan and Iraq have similarly disparate rates of Bronze Star awards. Operation Iraqi freedom saw 99,886 Bronze Stars awarded without V, and 2,461 with the V, and around 40,000 Combat Infantryman Badges awarded. Afghanistan had 66,040 Bronze Stars for merit and 2,055 for valor.


Bronze Star Format Changed Over Time

It’s clear that the Bronze Star does not hold the same meaning that it did in World War 2, when it was created as an equivalent to the Air Medal for infantrymen. General George Marshall wanted an award that would reflect the reality on the ground, where infantrymen “lead miserable lives of extreme discomfort and are the ones who must close in personal combat with the enemy.”[caption id="attachment_8571" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]

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Source: Utah National Guard[/caption]A year after the medal was introduced in 1944, the “V” started to be given out for acts of heroism or valor, which distinguished the two versions of the Bronze Star and made them vastly different. A Bronze Star without a “V” is now a more common award than a Combat Action Badge or Combat Infantryman Badge.Nowadays, the medal is given out to financial analysts in Afghanistan who train “68 operational fund teams,” or develop financial processes for a command, as one Air Force comptroller did for her Bronze Star.

Do we really need a license plate for every single award?

If you’re one of the roughly 170,000 troops awarded a Bronze Star without a “V” in Iraq or Afghanistan, Motor Vehicle Divisions across the United States will let you choose from a variety of different license plates to display your personalized contribution to the military.Some of these make sense to the layman: a license plate for Vietnam Veterans, Marines, or Purple Heart recipients can’t be misinterpreted for anything other than what it is. A license plate for a Silver Star, a Service Cross or a Medal of Honor are similar in that they can only be awarded for combat heroism, not meritorious service.So why do states have two separate plates for Bronze Stars with and without the “V” device? Pennsylvania does this. So does Virginia, and Colorado, and Maryland, and other states. And yet few, if any of these states have other merit awards on their list of veteran license plates.

Where does it stop?

At what point do we draw the line for merit awards? Should we have a license plate for my Navy and Marine Corps Achievement medal? What about my four letters of volunteer service, or the Presidential Unit Citation I received? What about my Marine Corps Martial Arts Grey Belt?[caption id="attachment_8575" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]

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I need a license plate to show everyone I made MCMAP Grey Belt. Source: Marine Corps Education and Training Command[/caption]If a state is to include the Bronze Star for merit, maybe it should also include the Legion of Merit, the Defense Superior Service Medal, the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the Soldier’s Medal, and the Distinguished Service Medal, all of which rank higher than the Bronze Star.[caption id="attachment_8576" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]

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There should be a license plate to commemorate filling sandbags. U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Michael B. Watkins/Released)[/caption]Where does it end? When, in the words of Sebastian Junger, will we stop “over-valorizing” veterans, rewarding them for every little thing they did in the service? Why do governments issue a Bronze Star license plate which is sure to be misinterpreted by many as a valor award for heroism in combat?Civilians don’t know the difference between a Bronze Star awarded at the end of a Master Sergeant’s year in an Afghanistan motor pool and one awarded for repelling an ambush “with complete disregard for his own safety and in spite of wounds sustained in combat.” Bronze Star license plates are misleading, and state governments should consider getting rid of them.

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