Relentless Combat, and Many Secret Awards, for America’s Special Operators
Since 9/11, nearly a fifth of the Distinguished Service Crosses and Silver Stars that the U.S. military has awarded to service members for heroism in battle were handed out in secret, USA Today reported in early March.
For one simple reason. The missions the troops were on when they earned the high awards, which rank just below the Medal of Honor, were themselves secret.
Of the 1,090 Distinguished Service Crosses and Silver Stars the military has awarded since 9/11, 216 were presented secretly.
The classified awards are indicative of the great extent to which the Pentagon wages America’s wars in the shadows.
Since 2001, Special Operations Command has seen its annual funding grow fivefold to $10 billion and its manpower double to 71,000. One unnamed senior Defense Department official told USA Today that the high number of secret medals reflects the military’s reliance on these forces to capture or kill terrorist leaders and free hostages.
The Pentagon is currently reviewing these awards to determine if any warrant an upgrade to the Medal of Honor. But due to the publicity that typically surrounds the country’s highest military honor, there is pressure within the Pentagon to limit the number of Medals of Honor it gives to Special Operations Forces.
“Recommending [a Medal of Honor] effectively removes a special operator from any future tactical operations by revealing his identity and making him into a celebrity, and it also brings increased public scrutiny into the unit itself,” Dwight Mears, a former history professor at West Point, told USA Today.
The Army’s Distinguished Service Cross and the Silver Star are, respectively, the second- and third-highest military decorations for gallantry in combat. Secret post-9/11 awards include one Distinguished Service Cross and three Navy Crosses — the equivalent of a DSC for sailors and Marines. The Navy and Army have also awarded 112 and 100 Silver Stars, respectively, for undisclosed operations.
“We are uniquely able to operate in a variety of environments to support strategic progress in achieving national security objectives,” Army general Joseph Votel, Special Operations Command’s top office, told Congress in 2015. “We are continuing to disrupt the violent actions of extremist organizations.”
“They’re the ace in the hole,” Army general Hugh Shelton, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said of Joint Special Operation’s Command, the subset of SOCOM that hunts, captures and kills terrorists. “If you need someone that can skydive from 30 miles away, go down the chimney of a castle and blow it up from the inside — those are the guys you want to call on.”
Special Operators also appeal to budget-conscious political leaders who perceive them to be more cost-effective than the more-numerous conventional forces.
“During times of austerity, the government often looks for ways to get ‘more bang for the buck,” wrote Steven Bucci, an analyst with the Heritage Foundation, an advocacy group for conservative “libertarian” policies. “When this budgetary philosophy is applied to the military, [Special Operations Forces], with their reputation for doing great things with fewer troops and resources than large conventional forces, seem like a bargain.”
America’s reliance on Special Operations Forces shows no sign of ending. In October 2015, the Pentagon announced plans to send commandos into Syria.