Defending America
David Hackworth
8 April 1997


We haven't won many wars since WW11. We had a draw in Korea and lost in Vietnam. In Iraq, we had the bad guys on the ropes and then George Bush and his top generals turned squeamish just when our forces were about to convert Saddam's Army into the biggest junkyard in world history. In fact, the only war we have won since the Big One was in El Salvador.

For eleven years, almost 5,000 American soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen slugged it out there while helping the government force the rebels to run up the white flag. Because the lid was on -- it was one of Ronald Reagan's close-held dirty little wars -- their gallantry didn't get much ink from the mainline press.

The victory didn't come without a hard price, either. The eighty five thousand Salvadorians who died were joined by 21 Americans, both warriors and support team members.

Purple Hearts aplenty were presented, but only one valor award -- and that was by the Marines to Major Al Cortez for heroism when the unit he was "advising" got clobbered. The fact is that without Cortez his unit would have suffered catastrophic casualties. He single-handedly saved the day, and, in any other war, his citation would have warranted a Silver Star or Navy Cross.

Sadly, to date, not one heroism award has been made to Army members who fought there, even though a squad of Army generals have done everything short of personally assaulting the Pentagon to make those in power recognize that small wars are horror shows too. Wars where people take the same enormous risks with their fragile human bodies and bleed and die the same horrific deaths.

Caring commanders such as retired General John Galvin have been leading this good fight. Galvin, then the skipper of the U.S. Southern Command (Latin America), wrote in a 1986 recommendation for Bronze Star medals for four of his men that "their flawless conduct and selfless dedication are truly deserving of special recognition."

Many of the citations sitting on the back-burner read like scripts for Rambo VI or VII. It's clear that in Vietnam or Desert Storm, these warriors would have been candidates for even higher awards.

The recommendation packet for Bronze Stars, Commendation Medals and Combat Medical and Infantry Badges for these deserving warriors collected cobwebs on one Pentagon general's desk for six months while it was "being worked" by his paper-shuffling drones.

Finally, the package, which has been winding it's way through the bureaucracy for over two years, has arrived at the office of the Army Chief of Staff .

Dennis Reimer, "The Chief," knows about wars ­ both the headlines grabbers and the hidden stuff. An artilleryman who was decorated with the Combat Infantryman's Badge and Bronze Star medal as an advisor to Vietnamese units during that War, he has a reputation for always fighting for the troops and doing the right thing.

Hopefully, Reimer will see that the warriors who fought in El Salvador have become Army Catch 22 victims and that they deserve the same consideration given the advisors who served with him in Vietnam and the Green Berets who fought in Laos, another secret but eventually acknowledged war.

Insiders say Reimer well knows that the bullets shot at our grunts in South East Asia and El Salvador made the same kind of ugly holes to the body and the soul. After all, the mud was just as thick, the jungle just as miserable, the fear and the dying just as real.

Medals are the ultimate badge of honor. A glance at a soldier's chest can tell an observer where the soldier has been, if he's bled and how he reacted when the bullets whizzed by.

These heroes who fought in El Salvador deserve their coveted medical and infantry badges as well as their long denied medals. So do the parents, wives and children of those who fell fighting communists during a war the sacrifices of their loved ones helped win. All these folks have now are photos and memories.

General Reimer should not only immediately approve these overdue awards to square a long standing injustice, he should assemble the heroes and their families in Washington and personally present the honors.

The end