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. 

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