About that Air Force Chaplain getting the Bronze Star…

So, some folks are pretty upset to learn that an Air Force chaplain was awarded the Bronze Star Medal (BSM) for writing a power point presentation in the wake of a Koran burning incident in Afghanistan.

After the accidental burning last year of Qurans by U.S. troops in Afghanistan sparked deadly rioting, an Air National Guard chaplain from Springfield stepped in and potentially saved countless American lives.
For his effort, Lt. Col. Jon Trainer received the prestigious Bronze Star — a medal given for heroic or meritorious achievement in connection with operations against an armed enemy.


And he did it with a PowerPoint presentation. . . .

Within 48 hours, Trainer developed a PowerPoint presentation on the proper handling and disposal of Islamic religious material that was seen by every American — military and civilian alike — in Afghanistan. The presentation then was distributed to the U.S. for use in all pre-deployment training.

Well, that would certainly seem to be rather insulting to  the large numbers of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines (and the odd Coastie) who have served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other theaters in the Global War on Terror, and not received a Bronze Star.

It seems particularly frustrating as the news comes today that another chaplain will finally be recognized for his valor and intrepidity more than 60 years later.

But here’s the thing…

First, LTC Trainer is in no way the bad guy here. Lot’s of people saw the article at NRO and are ready to let their outrage meters max out. He actually felt the need to step into the comment section:

Hey folks. Lt Col Trainer here. I am an almost daily frequenter to “The Corner.” Imagine my surprise when a friend pointed out I was actually on the corner!

This is an end of tour award. Standard fair for the rank, position, and responsibility I held during this tour–Training Chaplain for all the of the chaplains in Afghanistan and Garrison Chaplain at New Kabul Compound in Kabul. Events of serious consequence occurred while in theater; the article highlights those. The way the original article is written implies the BSM was given for writing a PPT presentation. This does not represent the facts nor the bullet points in the BSM write-up.

I am quite disappointed that NRO didn’t bother to look into this situation a bit deeper before posting an article that seems to undermine my six month deployment in service of our great nation and the troops I am proud to serve.

He is quite correct. Such an award to a field grade officer at the conclusion of a tour overseas (known as an EoT or End of Tour award) is typical, and would normally only be remarkable by its absence. That is, if LTC Trainer had not received an award, people would wonder how he screwed up.

And this kerfuffle shows up one of the great problems with the Bronze Star Medal.

Created in 1944, it was an conceived as roughly analogous to the Air Medal for meritorious service or valor, less than that worthy of the Silver Star, but still worthy of recognition.  The requirements were:

(a) while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States;
(b) while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force; or
(c) while serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party.

But there’s the rub. It is awarded either for meritorious service, or for valor. Those Bronze Stars awarded for valor are marked with a metallic “V” device. But it is entirely possible to earn the BSM without ever hearing a shot fired in anger, so long as you are deployed within a theater of operations. Worse yet, those medals that would normally recognize meritorious service, such as the Meritorious Service Medal, may not be awarded for service in a combat theater.

As a rule of thumb, when I see a Bronze Star without a “V” device, I automatically assume it is in the nature of an “I was there” award. Some people do earn them for one especially meritorious achievement during a tour, but most are simply EoTs.  But a BSM with the “V” device is an entirely different matter. Theoretically, all valorous awards of the BSM are roughly the same. I, and many others, tend to suspect that in reality, the award of a BSM(V) is a little easier for a senior NCO or officer than it is for a junior enlisted troop.  Further, there is a very strong feeling that the likelihood of a BSM award varies greatly between the services. The Marines especially, but also the Navy, are notoriously stingy with them, while the Army and especially the Air Force are seen as generous with them.

Personally, I favor a fairly generous policy for awards for valor. And indeed, I’ve no real problem with a fairly generous policy for awards in general. Heck, for a guy with a grand total of four days of combat time, I’ve got a fruit salad that makes me look like I defeated the Republican Guard singlehandedly armed only with a P-38 can opener. I never went hunting for awards, but I never turned one down, either. So I’d be a bit hypocritical if I started bitching about it now.

But so long as the Bronze Star remains an award both for doing your job well, and as an award for great personal valor, it will be especially controversial. To a lesser extent so will the services Commendation medals. The Department of Defense should take this opportunity to overhaul its awards program, and make the BSM strictly an award for valor. Lifting the restriction of awarding “peacetime” medals while deployed to a combat zone will still give the services ample opportunity to recognize merit, and restore some of the  prestige to its awards.

16 thoughts on “About that Air Force Chaplain getting the Bronze Star…”

  1. Way to tone down the internet hysteria and witch-hunting here. On a side note, on my last tour to Iraq, MSMs were actually on the list of available options, and lots of end of tour awards were MSMs vice BSMs, which was a welcome addition. Not sure of the regulatory chain, but it was appropriate, in my opinion. I really dread the writing of EOT awards and the inevitable discussion of rank. On the one hand, the EOT award is based on performance and responsibility. On the other, it generally turns out that more senior people have more responsibilty, while not necessarily much better performance; then it defaults to a rank cutline. Anecdotally, I have personally seen more ARCOMV and BSMVs awarded to junior folks but can’t tell you the statistical trend.

  2. On a side note, it would appear that the good chaplain Kapuan has a one-in-three chance of being an addition to the other MoH recipient who adorns my conference room wall. Need to find out which BN he was in.

    1. Assigned to HHC/8th CAV, attached to 3/8 CAV during the fight. Had written 3-8 CAV and went back to re-write it. Rare you can use the / appropriately.

  3. Not to stir the pot, while I agree with your assessment that this was an end of tour award and lots of people get them (me being one of them), those same people don’t have articles written about them in the newspaper. Someone called or wrote that newspaper in Dayton Ohio (the home of Wright Patterson AFB) and told them this story.

    The way that story was written is misleading to the non military person. Was that the paper’s fault or the way the story was related to the paper?

    So yeah, the fact that someone wanted publicity came back and bit an innocent person in the butt.

    Be careful what you wish for. Would be the lesson here, I think.

  4. Geez Brad, don’t you know you’re not supposed to look at OUTRAGE!!! stories in a factual and logical manner?
    You’re new to blogging, aren’t you?

    Seriously, thanks. It’s nice to see someone paying attention.

  5. I served for many months with Chaplain Trainer in Afghanistan and the Bronze Star was earned for meritorious service over the duration of his tour. The articles indicating otherwise are in error. The National Review was made aware of this error and persists in its publication of the article to pursue an agenda of the author. Ch Trainer is an honorable man and servant of this country. The journalists involved are a mixture of mistaken and agenda driven and have demeaned the honorable service of this fine man!

    1. National Review got their info from the Dayton Daily News. If I, (a person nobody at National review knows or even has heard of) ten or even twenty people e-mailed the National Review to tell them that their story was incorrect, who are they going to trust?


      This is the problem, when I was younger and in school, newspapers were considered reliable sources of accurate news. You could actually cite them as sources on a paper you wrote. It is to laugh.

      Dayton is were the Chaplain is from. The newspaper obviously didn’t make the story up on their own. Someone, perhaps a PAO called them seeking to spread a “good news” story. So to call National Review out as the sole bad guy in this, is about as bad as the people who call the Chaplain out for wearing an award that he allegedly didn’t deserve.

  6. Yeah, you pretty much hit the nail on the head, Xbrad.
    Since I was in Kuwait when the whole Quran-burning debacle went down, I had to give the PowerPoint presentation that CH Trainer devised to my whole battalion. It was ok, but nothing spectacular. About what I would’ve done if someone had given me a day to put it together. So no, there’s no way anyone would receive an award simply for *that* – and I would be the first one to raise the flag if that were the case.

    And it’s surprising how many military members are still (apparently) confused about the awarding of the BSM (without V) as a meritorious wartime award. Maybe they automatically assume that it’s for valor, but obviously such is not the case.

    In our battalion, no one received BSMs as end of tour awards, even though we technically could’ve rated it for being in Kuwait. Only 4 or 5 MSMs went to senior officers/enlisted, and the rest received either commendation or achievement medals.

  7. And my view on these awards….if an ARCOM or BSM has a V device it should be worn with precedent over awards with no V. So yes, I am proposing a ARCOM with V could be worn before a BSM for service.

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