A call to arms issued for long-denied medals Supporters say clash in Korea warrants Combat Infantry Badge

November 27, 1998|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Army Pfc. Michael A. Burgoyne heard the crackle of gunfire along Korea's demilitarized zone the day after Thanksgiving 1984.

He turned and saw North Korean troops surging into the demilitarized zone separating North and South, shooting at a fleeing Soviet defector.

Burgoyne, 20, crouched next to a tree and fired his .45-caliber handgun, striking one of the soldiers in the chest. Moments later, a North Korean bullet slammed into Burgoyne's jaw.

For 40 minutes, a squall of automatic weapons fire tore through trees, concrete buildings and bodies, killing a South Korean soldier and three North Koreans, and wounding Burgoyne and at least three others on both sides. The defector, 22-year-old Soviet Embassy trainee Vasily Matuzok, made it safely to the South Korean side.

It was the greatest loss of life on the Korean peninsula since the 1953 armistice and perhaps the most vicious firefight involving U.S. troops since Vietnam. But it was regarded as a mere Cold War footnote, and it made only two days of headlines.

Now, an effort is under way to finally recognize Burgoyne and about 40 other U.S. soldiers for their courage under fire: a coveted combat badge that for years has been stymied by Army infighting, inconsistent regulations and fears that a glut of medals for the U.S.-led invasion of Grenada in 1983 was cheapening their value.

Some retired military officers and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, are pressing Pentagon officials to award those soldiers the Combat Infantryman's Badge, one of the most prized possessions of a foot soldier. The simple badge -- a musket bordered by a wreath on a pale blue background -- signifies that a soldier survived enemy fire.

Heavily decorated World War II generals recalled years later that the badge was their most treasured honor. Army Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a Green Beret in Vietnam, wears his combat badge on his chest, high above his many medals and awards.

"They were, for all practical purposes, part of a hot war rather than a cold war," Rohrabacher said of the soldiers who fought that November day in Korea. "They obviously deserve a combat ribbon."

But in the days after the 1984 firefight, top Army officers decided to limit the number of awards to a handful of Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts. No combat badges would be awarded.

The previous year, the Army had come under sharp criticism for awarding 8,612 medals and infantryman's badges for the relatively low-risk U.S. invasion of Grenada. The medals outnumbered the 7,000 U.S. troops on the island. Some commendations went to troops who never left U.S. bases -- or even the Pentagon.

Retired Army Brig. Gen. Charles R. Viale, who as a lieutenant colonel commanded the U.S. and South Korean forces that took part in the fighting, says the combat badges should finally be awarded to his U.S. soldiers.

"It was every bit as intense as a firefight in Vietnam," said Viale, who won a Combat Infantryman's Badge in Vietnam and ended his career in September as commander of Fort Meade. "They fought bravely."

In the immediate aftermath of the 1984 firefight, Viale had agreed with his superiors that combat badges were not warranted, even though the soldiers had received combat pay and several

medals for valor. Those who earn the badge, they reasoned, must endure weeks of combat to earn the badge -- a standard dating from Vietnam.

But then came the brief invasion of Panama in late 1989, followed by the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The Army made exceptions to award combat badges to infantrymen who served in those conflicts, even though many of the recipients had never heard a hostile shot fired. "It was obvious the Army had changed the standard," Viale said.

This year, Viale recommended to Gen. Dennis J. Reimer, the Army's chief of staff, that his former troops finally gain the recognition they deserve. Reimer refused, noting that his senior advisers had recommended against it.

Moreover, in an August letter to Rohrabacher, the California congressman, the Army said that under regulations in place since the late 1960s, soldiers in Korea had to meet an especially rigorous standard to earn the combat badge. Soldiers there must serve 60 days in combat and engage the enemy five times to merit the badge, Lt. Col. Walter L. Clark Jr. wrote.

But Clark failed to mention in his letter that a board at Fort Benning in Georgia, acting on its own initiative, had recommended to top Army officers last summer that the combat badge be awarded to those involved in the 1984 firefight in Korea.

The five-member Army board concluded that the service had not considered "the intent and eligibility requirements" for the combat badge. "Instead, the Army justified its disapproval by stating that 'historically' the CIB has been a 'wartime' badge, authorized only for areas declared combat zones," the board concluded.

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