Despite the discomfort associated with carrying a compact metal detector (CMD) in his right hand as his left kept his M4 Carbine from bouncing off his plate carrier, LCpl Shane J. Alphie, a 28-year-old infantryman with 2d Battalion, 1st Marines (2/1), remained alert and focused on keeping the eight Marines following in trace safe from the enemy’s most lethal weapon—the pressure plate improvised explosive device (PPIED). He knew that only deliberate, disciplined individual actions would defeat the threat, and that, with each device he located and removed, the enemy suffered catastrophic setbacks that his squad could then exploit. This was combat. A determined, elusive enemy functioned in his area of operations. There was no question about it; the enemy wanted to kill him and would undoubtedly succeed if he compromised his self-discipline and focus.
When dirt kicked up 25 meters to his front, he instinctively knew that taking immediate cover from ineffective, but nevertheless potentially deadly, small arms fire could endanger the squad if they moved to firing positions that he had not cleared with his CMD beforehand. He momentarily ignored the presence of two Taliban fighters firing at his squad from 500 meters away in an effort to lure the squad into an IED-laden area and carefully waved his CMD, proofing a path for his squad so that they could reach effective firing positions.
Each Marine on that patrol itched for this moment his entire career. After 3 months of painstakingly searching for a faceless enemy, they finally had their chance to send rounds down range. But by the time they clicked their weapons off safe and peered through their sights, the enemy had withdrawn to the nearby village, dropped their weapons, and blended in among the local population. Because positive identification could not be established and hostile intent no longer determined, the squad leader, a young corporal, ordered his Marines to hold their fire. He submitted the appropriate combat report to the combat operations center and prepared to lead his squad back to the patrol base.
“Jonas, don’t move!”
“Don’t move, man, you are lying on a pressure plate. See the wires leading out from under it?”
Had PFC Jonas leaned forward another 6 inches, he would have closed the device’s circuit by pushing together two camouflaged blocks of wood, initiating a primer located in a yellow container filled with homemade explosives. The explosion from the IED, which the enemy had buried in the berm from which the squad prepared to return fire, would have likely killed PFC Jonas and caused serious injury to anyone near him. Instead, LCpl Alphie located and confirmed the device, PFC Jonas carefully moved to a cleared position, and they established a cordon that allowed the explosive ordnance disposal team to render the device safe.
Nobody would disagree—the squad effectively defeated the enemy. They won the engagement. But none of these disciplined, brave warriors would have been eligible for the coveted, highly prestigious Combat Action Ribbon despite having rendered satisfactory performance while engaged in combat operations with an opposing force. Why are they ineligible? Because the IED never exploded, because the enemy’s rounds did not impact within 10 meters of their position, and because the Marines did not return fire.
The problem sets that face Marines deployed in support of counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan are unique, and call for what many define as “unconventional” solutions. However, these solutions are as effective and as relevant as fire and movement and combined arms integration during a direct fire engagement.
But the criteria that made Marines eligible for the Combat Action Ribbon during 2/1’s deployment to Garmsir District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, from October 2010 to May 2011, often called for Marines to fail in their execution of tactics, techniques, and procedures in order to meet eligibility requirements. The Marines of 2/1 found and removed 427 of the 451 IEDs they encountered in Garmsir, achieving an extraordinary strike-to-find ratio of 94 percent. Cpl Mario A. Farias personally discovered over 50 IEDs in the vicinity of Patrol Base Montana, and, as a result, established himself as somewhat of a legend among 2/1 for his incredible ability to outthink the enemy. As a result of their collective successes in defeating the enemy by removing his ability to employ the IED, they were able to focus on the “soft” side of counterinsurgency—development of Afghan security forces, reconstruction and development, and governance. And, most importantly, more Marines came home from war unscathed.
Had the squad in the previous scenario returned fire, or had the PPIED exploded, innocent Afghans and Marines would have died, but a Combat Action Ribbon would have been awarded to every Marine on that patrol.
Awards exist to provide incentives for Marines; they shape actions and encourage superior performance, and the Combat Action Ribbon is one of the most sought after personal decorations by Marines of all ranks. But should we protect the value of this award by restricting eligibility requirements, or should we use it as a tool to encourage proper individual actions?
The Combat Action Ribbon’s eligibility, as it exists now, is counterproductive to counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan because it encourages Marines to allow IEDs to explode and to return fire under any circumstance. And it’s no secret that defeating the enemy during 2/1’s combat deployment meant finding the IED before it found you and holding your fire when appropriate. As a result, hundreds of 2/1 Marines came home without Combat Action Ribbons despite having defeated the enemy through self-discipline, restraint, and a strict application of counterinsurgency doctrine. LCpl Alphie’s squad should have been eligible for the award after having applied the appropriate solution to a complex problem set in combat, but it was not.
I strongly believe that the Combat Action Ribbon should be awarded to any Marine who discovers an IED or is involved in actions that lead to their discovery or removal. A change to our existing policy will instantaneously improve individual actions during counterinsurgency operations, and encourage our Marines to exercise maturity, discipline, and judgment in any combat situation.