U.S. advisers to Salvador army press for recognition as fighters Badge is denied to GIs who fought, even died

August 04, 1997|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Greg Walker spent nearly 18 months in El Salvador in the 1980s training that country's army in its struggle with Marxist-led rebels. Shot at by snipers, the Green Beret sergeant also pursued guerrillas into the rugged volcanic mountains after they attacked his base camp.

Walker returned home unscathed. Army Sgt. Greg Fronius and Lt. Col. David Pickett weren't so lucky. Fronius, another Green Beret, was killed in 1987 while rallying Salvadorans in a counterattack against the guerrillas. Pickett, an Army helicopter pilot, was shot down by the rebels in 1991, then executed.

Now, years after hundreds of American soldiers served under fire in El Salvador, Walker and others who survived are insisting that they and their fallen comrades such as Fronius and Pickett receive the recognition long denied them because of what they call politics on the home front.

Specifically they are looking for the Combat Infantryman Badge, one of the most prized possessions of a foot soldier. The simple badge, a musket bordered by a wreath, signifies that an infantry or Special Forces soldier came under fire.

Omar Bradley, the World War II general who went on to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, once said of all the honors he received the infantry badge he won early in his career was his most cherished. And Gen. Joseph W. "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell, the commander of U.S. troops in the China-Burma-India theater in World War II, detested medals -- but craved the infantry badge. Since the badge is awarded only to those whose rank is colonel or below, a special medal was granted to Stilwell, one day before he died.

So far, veterans of El Salvador have made little progress in their efforts to get the badge, as well as medals for heroism and meritorious service from the Army. The Pentagon won't acknowledge they were even in combat -- even though they received combat pay.

"It's shameful," said Walker, now an Oregon writer who chronicles the exploits of the Green Berets. "All we want to do is see people taken care of properly."

Fronius left a wife and two small children. His remains rest in the veterans section of a small cemetery in western Pennsylvania. "He was willing to take the risk there," said his brother Steve, who lives in Mount Pleasant, Pa. "I am just wondering why the government isn't giving them what they deserve."

Family members and veterans who served in El Salvador between 1981 and the signing of a peace accord in 1992 say they are caught in a vise of politics and bureaucracy.

In the 1980s, amid a battle of wills between President Ronald Reagan and a Democratic controlled Congress wary of U.S. involvement in El Salvador, the Pentagon assured lawmakers that the Americans serving there were advisers, not combatants.

Walker conceded that Pentagon officials are in a bind: They are being asked to repudiate the Defense Department's long-standing position that U.S. soldiers were serving as advisers and not combat infantrymen.

Moreover, the Pentagon's regulations relating to combat service are as dizzying as tax legislation, conferring the distinction on Americans who fought in Grenada, Somalia and Panama, but ignoring El Salvador, even though 21 Americans died there under hostile fire.

More than 5,000 U.S. soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines served during the decade in El Salvador. Most were Army personnel. Of those, several hundred would likely be eligible for the Combat Infantryman Badge. About 85,000 Salvadorans on both sides were killed during the conflict.

Members of Congress have weighed in with Walker, pressing Defense Secretary William S. Cohen to grant those soldiers the infantry badge, or its counterpart for medical personnel, the Combat Medic Badge.

Cohen is expected to receive his own internal report on the issue in about a month.

Even so, within the past month, the Army has once more concluded that those who served in El Salvador don't qualify.

"I just don't understand it," said Rep. David Dreier, a California Republican. "It just seems to me that if people who have participated in conflicts around the world have had this kind of recognition, there's no reason that those who served in El Salvador should not."

Lt. Col. Bill Harkey, a Pentagon spokesman, said that Gen. Dennis J. Reimer, the Army chief of staff, like his predecessors, had disapproved the infantry badge for veterans of El Salvador. "It goes back to 1986, Colin Powell and before," said Harkey.

Harkey said there is no "paper trail" that explains denial of the infantry badge. It is this lack of a detailed explanation that particularly irritates veterans. The regulations say that an infantry or Special Forces soldier must be part of a unit smaller than a brigade and engaged in combat with the enemy.

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