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. 

8 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.

  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.

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