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Master Sgt. Brian Blonder fought his way through four deployments as an elite Force Reconnaissance Marine in Iraq and Afghanistan. But his ribbon rack reflects a fact of 21st-century warfare: While Marines regularly engage in fierce combat, no leatherneck has earned more than one of the military’s three most prestigious valor awards.
The trend defies conventional wisdom and battlefield realities. Marines have been involved in some of the most significant battles in both conflicts. The other three service branches all have at least two warriors with either two Silver Stars or a service cross and a Silver Star.
Blonder counts a Navy Cross, a Bronze Star with “V” device and a Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with “V” among his valor decorations. Still, he said he believes the heroic actions of many other Marines have gone unrecognized since 9/11.
“Even though the scope and scale of the battles are not as large as some that took place in other conflicts, the actual individual acts of heroism are the same,” he said. “As a service, we are very hard on our Marines, and in awarding decorations for valor.”
It’s a common criticism in the Corps, but retired Col. Lee Freund, head of the Marine Corps Awards Branch, defended the way in which the service recognizes the heroism of its Marines and disagreed that the service is overly conservative in that regard.
“A much more correct observation would be that the Marine Corps staunchly avoids inflation of valor awards and consistently seeks to ensure that the level of valor required to earn a specific valor award remains consistent with awards earned by Marines in previous conflicts,” Freund said.
There is no shortage of heroism in the Corps, of course. The service has awarded two Medals of Honor, at least 33 Navy Crosses and dozens of Silver Stars for actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Blonder and at least one other active-duty Marine, Sgt. Maj. Justin Lehew, also have received both the Navy Cross and Bronze Star with V for actions in separate battles.
The Corps relies heavily on the experience and judgment of its commanders to ensure awards standards and criteria are applied uniformly, Freund said. That’s a challenge, he acknowledged, but added that the Corps “does not apply a ‘cookie cutter’ approach to awarding personal decorations in combat, where one specific type of action results in one specific level of award.”
“Each individual combat action is different and occurs under varying circumstances,” he said.
At least one other factor could contribute to the dearth of present-day Marines with more than one of the military’s most prestigious valor awards: By design, the Corps is the youngest of the services, with 75 percent of enlisted members leaving after their first enlistment, noted Maj. Shawn Haney, a Marine Corps spokeswoman.
That trend is even more pronounced in the Corps’ infantry units, where 82 percent to 85 percent of Marines leave after one enlistment. That limits the possibility that a Marine will more than once get into the kind of hair-raising situation that calls for a single, momentous act of valor.