More servicemembers respond to our popular thread:
Promotion to sergeant and to staff sergeant is based on a points system. One of the categories is Awards and Decorations, for which a soldier will earn a certain number of points for each award or badge that he or she wears. This system encourages leaders to find a reason to recommend someone for an award, when a reason may not be obvious (and if it's not obvious, is it really awards-worthy?).
When I was enlisted, I was awarded five Army Achievement Medals, one Army Commendation Medal and one Meritorious Service Medal. All of that in a six-year enlistment, without a deployment. Why? Because my superiors wanted to see me get promoted. But as a result, I have a number of relatively meaningless awards.
In a refreshing break from the norm, some soldiers have elected NOT to wear all of the awards and decorations that they're authorized. For example, look at this photo of Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs GEN Martin Dempsey, wearing just two rows of ribbons on his uniform.
I was deployed on the USS TRUMAN in 2010, working for an F/A-18 squadron. One of the pilots from my squadron was flying around the ship at night and spotted a ship on fire. He reported it and a helicopter was dispatched, resulting in nine Iranian fishermen being rescued. It was a a great thing to do, no doubt about it. But then every single person who was involved with the rescue, from the Hornet pilot, the helo crew, the medical personnel who took care of the fishermen, the translators and even the cooks who cooked for the fishermen got a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal (NAM). Every single one. We joked that the Hornet pilot got a medal for seeing a fire at night in the middle of the ocean.
I've been in the Navy for about five years and have recieved more than my share of medals. I already have two NAMs, but only one of which I'm proud (ie I did something worth mentioning). My first NAM was for not getting fired at my first job, basically, and when I leave my current command, I'm going to get another for the same reason.
My grandfather served as a radio technician in the Air Force in the '50s. While staitioned in Alaska, he was the only person to hear a faint distress call from a town whose generator had broken and who was running out of food and water. He reported it and the town was saved. In today's military, he would have gotten a big award for just doing his job. Back then, they offered him the equivalent of a certificate saying "Good job!" and he turned it down, as he was just doing his job.
I agree that there seems to be an over-abundance of medals and awards, and yes, they can be awarded for something that happens off-duty. I share a few of the ones worn on General Patraeus' chest, having served two tours in the Middle East. However, I will say this; most don't boast. And they aren't really for the public anyway. We don't wear these for you. We wear these for our brothers and sisters-in-arms.
Think of this way; at your job, if you meet performance expectations, and/or exceed them, you receive a bonus, be it monetary or otherwise. We have similar expectations, but unlike you, cannot be awarded any such gift for this or even a heroic act. You get a set of golf-clubs for 10 years at your job, I get a ribbon. I care what that ribbon means, like you would be proud of your golf clubs mean. What some people call boastfulness is a snapshot of our career on our chest.
I'm a civilian, and for a long time, my concept of the medals on a soldier's chest was that the soldier earned them in combat by going above and beyond. Then I started writing a short story and needed some detail about a ribbon on a soldier's uniform. It was a bit of a revelation.
The one that stuck with me was the Antarctica service medal. You get it for being in Antarctica. If you spend a winter there, you get a device to pin to it. Two or three winters and the color of the little pin changes.
No doubt, Antarctica is a tough assignment. But it's not a war zone and might not require any braver action than surviving the cold. My suspicion is that it mostly involves ferrying supplies to scientific outposts. It's very important and probably dangerous, but it's dangerous because of the weather, primarily, not because there's terrorists in Antarctica.
I suspect most civilians assume, like I did, that all those medals mean tremendous acts of bravery. A lot of them, like your Marine reader points out, are for showing up. It's like a soldier's service record in ribbon form. A soldier's superiors need to know he was in Antarctica. It probably helps them figure out who has the necessary experience for some assignment. Likewise, knowing that a soldier was in a combat area is important for health care providers should he need mental health care down the road.
But most of us in the civilian world don't know what all those little colorful things mean, and we make assumptions. We don't know that one of those is for not getting in trouble for a certain number of years, so we assume it's for doing something awesome.
The worst of it is, I suspect Petraeus and generals like him know that those of us outside the military don't have a clue what all those things mean, and they know we look at them and assume they must be amazing soldiers. And they may be, but not all those medals really tell that story.