Washington -- The military awards system is running like a pitching machine gone crazy, pumping out so many decorations that even the recipients sometimes wonder why they're getting them. The final tally from the Gulf war is likely to total 6 million medals.
Charles Potempa got one for attending graduate school. The former Marine captain from Chicago spent his last two weeks in the Corps, Aug. 2-15, 1990, checking out, packing his gear and driving back to Ohio State University. He received the National Defense Service Medal for simply being in the military in the two-week period following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
Every one of America's 3 1/2 million active duty and reserve service members in good standing also received this medal -- just for being in the military during a period of national emergency.
''The system is lost,'' said Mr. Potempa in a telephone interview. ''We've got too many medals, so many that it seems hard to stop giving them.''
Herewith, a few principles that might repair the worst abuses:
* Stop giving something for nothing. Eliminate the National Defense Service Medal on the ground that just being in the military doesn't rate a medal. The troops call this ''the brownie button,'' suggesting it has zippo prestige anyway.
* No clubhouse medals. For the same reason the National Defense medal should be dropped, we might consider eliminating the Air Medal. It's awarded for flying either a certain number of combat missions or flying for so many months in a combat theater (the criteria vary by service). To be sure, there is a special danger in air operations, but a ground trooper doesn't get a medal for so many combat actions, and walking point on a patrol is the most naked and vulnerable feeling in the world.
By the same token, the Distinguished Flying Cross could be eliminated. There is no Distinguished Submarining Cross, for example, so why should the aviators have a unique medal when the Silver Star and other medals exist for rewarding heroism in aerial combat?
* No two-fers. Everybody who served in Vietnam received a service medal from the U.S. and a campaign medal from the South Vietnamese government. In the Gulf war, every service member will receive at least three campaign medals: one from the U.S., a second from the Saudi government and a third is in the works from the grateful emir of Kuwait. That's a whole row of participation medals.
Give the troops one U.S.-issued campaign medal. Tell the Saudis to hold the medals and send a $100 appreciation check to each of the troops instead. The emir can do likewise.
* Combat is No. 1. The Medal of Honor and the various service crosses (e.g., Navy Cross) still rank Nos. 1 and 2 in the hierarchy of awards, but the Silver Star and the Bronze Star rank lower in precedence than a brace of medals for consummate staff work.
Good staff work can have a decisive impact on the battlefield, but remember what combat awards are all about. A typical citation for battlefield heroism begins with the words, ''For action in the presence of an armed enemy.'' The words are chilling, but they capture the contest of opposing wills and what war is all about. As a general principle, guts under fire should rate a higher medal than sterling paperwork under fluorescent lights.
The Medal of Honor should be reserved for offensive combat, including counterattacks. Russel Stolfi, a Marine Corps Reserve colonel, recalls that this was the German standard in World War II for awarding their highest medal, the Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds.
''The action had to be offensively oriented and have a significant impact on the battle,'' he said. Under this standard, the Medal of Honor would not be given to the soldier who throws himself on an enemy grenade to save the lives of his buddies. The Silver Star seems a fitting tribute for such bravery.
* Real blood for the Purple Heart. Although this medal is supposed to be given only for wounds and death in action, in the Panama operation the Army awarded a Purple Heart to a soldier prostrated with heat exhaustion. Try this standard: The wound should break the skin and be severe enough to require evacuation from the unit for 48 hours or more.
Tighten up at the entry level. The debasement of the awards system begins at the cadet level, like the ROTC ''colonel'' seen ++ wearing a chestful of medals and ribbons. Strip all this stuff off the uniforms of our young Gen. Douglas MacArthurs. The overarching message should be that medals aren't like Monopoly money; they're given to real soldiers who fight real wars.
Javid Evans is military affairs writer for the Chicago Tribune.