Contact, Brawls, and Chambering: The Combat Action Ribbon

Today’s post comes from Thomas Richardson, an expert archives technician at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, Missouri. 

Not all service members in the United States Armed Forces serve in combat. In fact, fewer than 15 percent of enlisted personnel ever see combat or are assigned a combat role. How can one tell the difference between those who served in combat and who didn’t?

In 1969, the Department of the Navy established one of its most recognized awards: the Combat Action Ribbon. Created at the height of the Vietnam War, the ribbon is both the most highly regulated and the most retroactively applied award in both the Navy and Marine Corps. When determining eligibility, it takes intensive investigative research by records technicians and the service branch to ensure that a veteran is entitled to the Combat Action Ribbon.

The Secretary of the Navy established the Combat Action Ribbon (CAR) on February 17, 1969. The criteria set by the Department of the Navy requires bona fide evidence that the member was engaged in direct combat with an enemy. Not only does a person need to be in combat, but they must have acted satisfactorily, i.e., did not surrender or disobey orders from commanding officers.

The CAR is not limited to only those with a combat military occupational specialty; any personnel serving in a hostile area that engages with the enemy may receive the CAR. An area where enemy engagement is documented is also taken into consideration, and this geographic designation becomes extremely important when determining if a veteran is eligible for a retroactive award.

Initially the CAR was made retroactive to 1961 to accommodate those serving in Southeast Asia and other special operations around the globe. In October 1999, Public Law 105-65 shifted the retroactive date to December 7, 1941. This allowed for World War II and Korean War veterans to apply for and wear the CAR. But how does the Navy and Marine Corps determine entitlement during those conflicts? 

Fortunately for the veteran—and the NPRC archives technician who researches the service record—massive ledgers and rubrics contain the movements and engagements of every ship and ground unit since World War II. The NPRC cross-references a veteran’s unit or ship with their unit records based on periods of service. Those are broken down further to specific locations and cross-referenced with a veteran’s service record. If they were attached to a unit or ship that saw combat in their time frame, they are eligible for the CAR. If a veteran receives a service star on their campaign ribbon, they are eligible for the CAR. Since over four million sailors and Marines served in World War II and Korea, applications for the CAR are some of the most common requests among Navy and Marine Corps awards. 

Where is the Coast Guard in all of this? Historically the Coast Guard followed the same pattern as the Navy, especially when it pertains to awards. Coast Guard members attached to units that saw combat were eligible to receive the CAR. It wasn’t until 2008 that the Department of Homeland Security created the Coast Guard CAR. The majority of CGCARs were issued for the Vietnam War, when service members served in the “brown water navy” patrolling the Mekong Delta in South Vietnam. 

Through an agreement between the NPRC and the service branches, the Department of the Navy verifies the service record information provided by the NPRC and determines whether or not an individual receives the CAR. If all the specific criteria are met, the veteran receives the award.

However, as with many other awards, there can be some gray areas, and details matter. Simply being in a theater of operations doesn’t ensure entitlement. This is true with Marine Corps records; a service member can be stationed in an area in support of operations against the enemy but not directly engage the enemy in combat. If NPRC cannot fully determine if someone receives the CAR, they refer their case to the Navy. Many Navy veterans from World War II who served in the Pacific qualify only if they participated in certain operations, such as the Battle of Leyte Gulf or the long island-hopping campaign to the Japanese home islands.

Veterans of combat deserve to be recognized for their actions, and the Combat Action Ribbon does just that. 

36 thoughts on “Contact, Brawls, and Chambering: The Combat Action Ribbon

  1. Many Navy Vietnam Veterans were on vessels engaged in NGFS missions, firing on the enemy but not receiving return fire. Does that constitute “combat” and if so does eligibility extend to the entire crew or only those engaged in gunnery duties or would it include the entire crew?

    1. Some ships operating in the Tonkin Gulf were periodically fired upon by a North Vietnamese shore battery, only to start evasive action and call in air support to target the shore battery. The ship did not return fire. Would this qualify for the CAR or a bronze service star on a CAR or does it not fit the “engage” the enemy wording?

    2. I would think NGFS missions don’t meet the standard for combat. When you engage in a firefight with the enemy, that’s combat. The Purple Heart also has the combat standard. A certain politician claimed 3 Purple Hearts, the circumstances were all questionable, earning him the resentment of many Nam vets. If you don’t spend 24 hours in hospital receiving treatment for a combat injury, to me that doesn’t meet the standard for PH. CAR should carry a higher standard as well. Unless the bad guys shoot back, that’s not combat. Thanks for your service and welcome home, shipmate.

      1. Just so you know, the individual doesn’t award a Purple Heart to himself. The command does this. Basically anyone doubting the validity of an award is calling the integrity of the service itself into question. Those who doubt the validity of an award are basically accusing one of the US armed forces of committing fraud.

        1. Yes, some of us are accusing one of the US Armed Forces of committing fraud. You possibly have never served, or you would know “politics,” personal likes and dislikes, etc. are quite often the determining factors in not only awards, but promotions, assignments, transfers, etc.

          Just like EVERY human enterprise, the US Armed Forces have personnel of less than sterling character and ethics. And bad actions that reflect that fact.


      3. The Swift Boaters were shown to be lying about what happened.

        In any event, regarding the Purple Heart, keep in mind it is NOT a military AWARD. It differs from military awards in that a service member IS NOT “recommended” for the decoration; rather the member is ENTITLED to it upon meeting specific criteria (e.g., a medical doctor confirms the injury or wound, and separately there’s evidence the wound was suffered by engagement with the enemy).

        Bonus Comment: As all combat Veterans know, receiving a Purple Heart is a big a deal because within the VA Healthcare system we are put into “Priority Group 1” – medical care is totally free; there’s no co-pays or deductibles; and we go to the head of the line (that matters in a healthcare system that has 8 million patients).

        Additionally, being awarded the CAR is also a big deal because the VBA (Veterans Benefit Administration) gives the CAR significant weight when determining the legitimacy of the Vet’s claims for service-connected disability compensation.

        1. Only a fool.doesnt believe officers can get awards easier. I saw a chaplain trip over wire. Get a tiny cut. And get a purple heart. All while I was being stitched up. I never got a purple heart

      1. Interesting but untrue statement George. All aboard a destroyer escort received CARs. By your definition a “lob” from onshore artillery RVNA within 50 yards would equate to lobbing rounds from within 6 miles of territorial waters near the DMZ. I beg to differ.

    3. I was awarded the CAR for my role in what has become known as “The Battle of Dong Hoi” on 19 April 1972. From what I recollect, not everyone assigned to the ship received the CAR. I was working in Combat Information Center at the time.

    4. I served in the brown water navy in Vietnam and was awarded the CAR. From what I know, a service member on NGFS missions does NOT qualify for the CAR. This is because a gunfire support mission is not defined as combat against the enemy.

      You can see this when you consider the CAR’s award precise requirements:

      – For a military member to be awarded a Combat Action Ribbon evidence must establish the member ENGAGED the enemy, was UNDER HOSTILE FIRE, or was PHYSICALLY ATTACKED attacked by the enemy;* AND,

      – The service member must have demonstrated satisfactory performance UNDER ENEMY FIRE while actively PARTICIPATING In a ground or surface engagement.

      These requirements make sense, otherwise the CAR would be meaningless if everyone and their mother’s uncle could get the award (e.g., the truck driver delivering ammo; the cook; medical staff in the combat zone; the firemen in the engine room; etc.),

      *One might argue that a NGFS mission qualifies because the gunners mate, et al., technically “ENGAGED the enemy.” But the argument fails because the second prong was not met: being UNDER ENEMY FIRE.

  2. I would think NGFS missions don’t meet the standard for combat. When you engage in a firefight with the enemy, that’s combat. The Purple Heart also has the combat standard. A certain politician claimed 3 Purple Hearts, the circumstances were all questionable, earning him the resentment of many Nam vets. If you don’t spend 24 hours in hospital receiving treatment for a combat injury, to me that doesn’t meet the standard for PH. CAR should carry a higher standard as well. Unless the bad guys shoot back, that’s not combat. Thanks for your service and welcome home, shipmate. The posting from G Montgomery is a bit different with a ship being fired on and not returning fire. Imho, since there was no exchange, I’d think the CAR wouldn’t be justified. Personally, I’d be pissed at the skipper for turning tail. Warships are meant to go in harm’s way. He could’ve taken evasive action and returned fire while still putting distance between his ship and the shore battery. My skipper, God rest his soul, frequently put us in harm’s way and we respected him. Our mission was to kill VC, not run from them.

    1. Just so you know, the individual doesn’t award a Purple Heart to himself. The command does this. Basically anyone doubting the validity of an award is calling the integrity of the service itself into question. Those who doubt the validity of an award are basically accusing one of the US armed forces of committing fraud. Also, those who die in combat a lot of time don’t spend 24 hours in the hospital. Guess they wouldn’t qualify for the Purple Heart according to your standards.


  3. BSicalky, what you have done is accuse one of our armed forces of fraud. The award of Purple Heart is done by a unit command. The individual himself also cannot recommend himself for the award. You are calling the honor of those who recommended the Purple Heart into question. The way I feel, if the command recommended the award, I will take their word for it being merited. Those who recommended the award were at the scene, this is what counts to me. Anyone calling out their word, who wasn’t there, is basically nothing more than know nothing individual applying some standard that isn’t even regulation.

    1. When a navy corpman receives the purple heart, does the person receives the citation as well as the nomination for the award?

      1. When a person is wounded and receives the Purple Heart Medal, the member’s company/battalion/division HQ drafts orders authorizing the award to everyone in that unit for a specific time frame. A copy of those orders are placed in the member’s service record. Whether there is a formal citation or certificate for the Purple Heart, that is done at the discretion of the commander of the unit.

      2. If you read the criteria for the CAR it states the recipient must have engaged the enemy while being engaged by direct fire from the enemy. This was a big point in Iraq and Afghanistan since the enemy would launch mortars on to camps all the time. Since mortars aren’t direct fire even if you were able to shot the mortar men you would not qualify for the CAR

  4. Why do many of the Marine Corps officers who have never been in direct combat wear CAR ribbons. I call it “rank has its priveledges “ !!!

    1. CAR eligibility for Iraq and Afghanistan was opened to include running over or triggering an IED.
      I was an armored vehicle crewman and machine gunner in the Iraq invasion 2003. Tankers, grunts, vehicle gunners, even tons of service support people, all were awarded the CAR. I was in enough firefights, but I never got hit nor scratched. I have no Purple Heart medal.
      I do feel it lessens the award for only running over an IED, but I’m not in charge.

      1. Disagree with you on IEDs. Served in Iraq in 05 in Al Anabar and two more deployments to Afghanistan. I have a CAR from both OIF and OEF and a Purple Heart from my last deployment to OEF where I was injured by an IED.

        IEDs are much more lethal than small-arms fire. IEDs when I was in Iraq where literally killing everyone inside a vehicle. We had a track get hit with an IED killed 4 guys inside and seriously injured everyone else. IEDs are booby traps set by an enemy and you do not see it coming and it is engaging the enemy.

        1. My son who was a Navy corpman received the purple heart for wounds received in vietnam/Laos. Ten years later while stationed at Parris Island. It was handed to him like a piece of paper, no citation. Concurrent, he was handed a proposed citation for the Bronze Star with V for valor. Apparently this award was never submitted. My son passed away on 15 Mar 2023. I have written to the record center for copy of purple heart citation as well as what happened to Bronze Star nomination. As I suspected, this request apparently is not important to record center because I never heard from anyone. His wife also has attempted to get this info, again no results. He was also awarded the combat action medal/ribbon along with several other ribbons while serving in Iraq. All these awards are shown on DD Form 214, but nothing about the Bronze Star. We need answers from these beauricratic organizations. I believe, as many vets do, rank has its privilege. I know exactly how it works. I served almost 30 years in the Air Force.

          1. You may want to present your request to your local U.S. congressman/congresswoman. They seem to have the ability to get results on these type of issues.

    2. Exactly, it was at one time the Bronze Star was awarded with a V device. An officer now will get it for command

      1. Majority of US Army troops leaving Vietnam received a Bronze star without a V for valor device. They were issued as an end of tour award. Unfortunately there are several inaccurate about officers receiving awards they were not qualified for.

  5. I was mt Capt on a 5″38 gun , we engage the shore battery’s and the ship was hit in the main deck resulting in some injury’s. This was off of Hanoi in the gulf , we were assign to Yankee station. The ship was u.s.s Canberra cag 2 . We fired over30,00 round during the enployment

  6. According to 2019 data, just 10% of the total military force is engaged in combat. 40% of service members do not see battle, while just 10% to 20% of the remaining 60% are sent into war zones. Furthermore, the vast bulk of these members enter the arena as support troops.

  7. I was involved in defending the airbase at Danang Vietnam on the night of July 1, 1965. Had to go to the armory and get ammo because we were not issued ammo at the time. The sapper attack took out a C-130 , two or three UH 34’s and a few F102’s before we repelled them. Yes we were fired at and returned the fire , after we got ammo. Would this qualify for a combat action ribbon? Was playing cards with friends at HMM 365. 1stMAW. I was with MWHG-1 at the time(US MARINE CORPS) Had a winning hand when we heard the 1st motar round.

  8. My husband is applying for Agent Orange benefits due to prostate cancer. He was in country as a Marine sniper in July of 1971. He was discharged from the Marines in 1975. His CAR physically reached him years later when he was in the Army Reserve. It states on his DA form 2-1 that he was awarded the CAR in August of 1971.

    We have applied for Agent Orange benefits due to his prostate cancer. His claim has been denied because his military record from the NPRC (which we had our state representative request so that we could be assured we got the whole file) contains no record of him ever being in Vietnam. It shows no orders, no overseas pay, nothing. We also requested, through an SF 180 “All documents validating entitlement to all awards including CAR” through the Dept of the Navy. They also came back with no supporting documents.

    All we have to prove that he was in Vietnam are his memories, the DA form 2-1 and the actual ribbon which is not enough evidence to get the benefit. Does anyone have any ideas of any other place we could search for his records?

  9. It has always frustrated me that the army never had a CAR. It has the CIB and the Combat Medic Badge but those are restricted to those with an Infantry or Medic MOS. It now finally has the Combat Action Badge but that has only awarded since the start of the GWOT. Army artillerymen, engineers, signal corpsman, MP’s, and other Vietnam Veterans saw a lot of combat but were never recognized for their heroic service with a CAR.

  10. To settle the requirements for award of the Combat Action Ribbon google Navy and Marine Corps Awards Manual (SECNAVM-1650-1 of August 2019) The date August 2019 is the last revision of the Manual.

    R.A Nelson, CDR,SC,USN (ret) 1965-1996 Mustang

    My 1st ship, USS Caddo Parish (LST-515) earned the CAR when hit by a VC rocket while beached at Vung Tau RVN in April 1968.

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