Give medal to combat vets of El Salvador, panel says Political considerations kept hundreds from receiving Army honor

December 05, 1997|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Hundreds of soldiers who served under fire in El Salvador should be awarded a coveted combat badge, according to an Army board that said the service mistakenly failed to bestow it and "must never again deny its soldiers due recognition."

The four-member board unanimously recommended that infantry soldiers and Green Berets who served as advisers in El Salvador from 1981 until 1992 receive the Combat Infantryman Badge -- a musket bordered by a wreath signifying that they came under hostile fire.

That recommendation has won approval from two Army generals as it winds its way to Gen. Dennis J. Reimer, the Army chief of staff, who will make the final decision.

Reimer ordered the board's review last summer after The Sun detailed how U.S. soldiers came under attack, and in some cases were killed, helping the Salvadoran army fight Marxist insurgents.

Since the 1980s, Army chiefs of staff -- including Reimer -- have denied the advisers the infantryman's badge.

Army officials have said previously that the badge is reserved for soldiers whose primary mission is combat, rather than those deployed as advisers.

But proponents of granting the badge say politics was paramount in the denial: The Pentagon repeatedly told Congress throughout the conflict that soldiers were there as advisers, not combatants.

"The Army staff justified its disapproval with semantics," according to the board of officers and senior non-commissioned officers that met at the Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, Ga., in September.

The panel's report was obtained by The Sun.

"Members of the board felt that if the United States sends its infantrymen abroad and these infantrymen are under hostile fire," the report said, "they clearly meet the intent and eligibility requirements for awarding the Combat Infantryman Badge."

"Additionally, several board members felt that the Army must never again deny its soldiers due recognition," according to the report.

It also approved badges for infantrymen involved in two other hot spots: Panmunjom, on the border between North and South Korea, in 1984 and Somalia in 1993 and 1994.

Maj. Gen. Carl F. Ernst, commander of the infantry school, sent along the recommendation and added in a Sept. 18 memo that it would be "a great injustice" not to award the CIB.

Gen. William W. Hartzog, commander of the Army's Training and Doctrine Command at Fort Monroe, Va., forwarded his approval to the Army's Total Personnel Command in Alexandria.

Shari Lawrence, a spokeswoman for the Personnel Command, said the recommendation is being reviewed.

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 badge.

About 85,000 Salvadorans on both sides were killed during the conflict. Twenty-one Americans died during hostilities.

One soldier expected to receive a posthumous CIB is Lt. Col. David H. Pickett, who was a 40-year-old Army helicopter pilot when he was shot down by the rebels in 1991, then executed.

He is also under consideration for a POW medal and a Distinguished Flying Cross.

Yesterday Pickett's father, Edward, a 72-year-old retired Army colonel who earned a CIB and a Silver Star as a battalion commander in Vietnam, said he found it hard to believe that his former comrades have for so long rejected the badge for his son and others.

"We always used to take care of our own," Pickett said in an interview from his Kentucky home.

"When we don't take care of our own, morale suffers."

Pub Date: 12/05/97

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