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SFC pitches idea for 'Army Retirement Medal'

Serve 20, earn an award

Feb. 9, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
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When Sgt. 1st Class Steven Janotta first floated his idea for a retirement medal, some of his peers thought he was joking and wasting their time.

But the infantryman, who has 25 years of service, was serious.

“If you’ve stayed in for the long haul and hit your 20-year mark, that’s a significant event,” Janotta said. “Toughing it out for 20 years — that’s two decades in the military.”

All new soldiers receive the Army Service Ribbon just for enlisting, explained Janotta, who serves as the chief of operations at the Sabalauski Air Assault School at Fort Campbell, Ky.

“That’s the first award you’ll get, and, to me, it was the start of your career,” he said.

The retirement medal would honor the end of a soldier’s career.

“It’s a closing out, if you will, where you got one ribbon to start with, and this was the last ribbon you got,” he said. “Twenty years of dedication to something is worth something.”

If you’re hating on this idea right now, Janotta isn’t surprised. He knew his idea would attract critics and naysayers, and it might be a tough sell, especially because the Army already has a wide array of medals and ribbons that soldiers can earn. His idea also comes on the heels of the controversial and now-defunct Distinguished Warfare Medal, which was intended to honor drone pilots and cyber warriors.

The so-called drone medal was almost universally panned after it was announced last year, and it has prompted a Defense Department review of the military’s medals and awards.

“Most people are probably going to tell you it’s a waste of time or a waste of money,” Janotta said about the retirement medal.

But Janotta believes in the idea, and is hopeful Big Army is paying attention.

On average, about 18 percent of people who join the military will stay in uniform long enough to retire.

The retirement medal would be something special for those retiring soldiers, who typically receive the Meritorious Service Medal or the Army Commendation Medal at the end of their careers, Janotta said.

He’s created a PowerPoint slide touting the medal and even gave it a design incorporating Army black and gold colors; gold numbers to identify your years of service; and a medallion with the Department of the Army emblem.

Here’s Janotta’s vision for awarding the Army Retirement Medal:

■It would only be granted to soldiers who retired honorably.

■A soldier’s DD 214, which is proof of how many years a service member has served, will serve as orders for the medal.

■The medal would be retroactive, so retired soldiers can get the medal using their DD 214.

■It would not be a substitute for the award units give soldiers for their time in service.

“If your unit wants to give you an ARCOM, that’s for time at your last duty station, not for the whole career,” Janotta said.

■While Janotta’s original intent was to reward longevity, he supports the idea of also awarding the medal to medically retired soldiers.

■If the Army adopts the medal, he said other services could follow suit with their own versions.

■ And likely the most controversial suggestion from Janotta: That the medal be second in precedence to only the Medal of Honor.

The reason is that he envisioned the ribbon sitting on the top left of the rack of most soldiers to symbolically “close out” his or her service.

“The Medal of Honor is the highest award anybody can get in any service, so you wouldn't want it to go below [the retirement medal],” he said. “And this is the lid on the jar, this closes you out. That’s why it’s so high up there.”

Some would undoubtedly take issue with this idea, given that would put the retirement medal higher than other valor awards like the Distinguished Service Cross and Silver Star.

Janotta later said he isn’t set on the order of precedence, especially when it comes to ranking it above combat or valor awards.

“The Army would have to decide the precedence,” he decided.

Receiving the medal for your retirement means there won’t be many opportunities to wear it in uniform, Janotta said, beyond special events such as military balls.

“Who knows? The next time you put on your Class As might be when they put you in the coffin, if you can still fit in them,” Janotta said.

He offers blunt answers for detractors unconvinced by his pitch.

What if you already have too many ribbons to fit on your rack? “Then don’t wear it.”

What if you don’t want it? “Then don’t wear it.”

If you don’t like the idea? “Then don’t buy it.”

Throughout a soldier’s career, he or she will earn the MSM or ARCOM multiple times for various assignments or deployments or as a permanent change-of-station award, Janotta said.

Soldiers earn these medals every two or three years as they progress in their careers, and those who reach retirement also earn an MSM or ARCOM for their 20-plus year careers.

“It’s like it’s no big deal, and people will say, ‘I don’t worry about the award, so I don’t care,’ ” Janotta said. “But for someone to retire from any military service, it takes dedication and heart, and at the end, if you’re going to tough it out that long, I think you should get a medal just for that.”

The Army has a process, through the chain of command and Human Resources Command, for soldiers who want to submit their ideas for new awards or decorations, officials said.

Janotta said he will pursue his idea and submit to the process if he garners support from more soldiers.

'A meaningful thing'

Janotta, who will retire next year at age 44, had his own doubts and almost gave up on the idea, until his friends and colleagues encouraged him.

First Sgt. Michael Blizard, who’s assigned to the air assault school at Fort Bragg, N.C., admittedly thought Janotta was pulling his leg at first.

“When I first looked at it, I thought it was a joke,” said Blizard, who has been in the Army 27 years and served six deployments.

But Janotta made his case and won Blizard over.

“I just think it’s a good award to give a guy or gal who has just given their entire life to the military,” he said. “I don’t want to be that guy who’s sitting back and thinking stuff up and saying, ‘I want more, I deserve more,’ but I think 20 or more years is deserving of a ribbon.”

Janotta also has his chain of command’s backing. Capt. Robert Hammer, the executive officer of the air assault school, and the first sergeant, 1st Sgt. Robert Flynn, a 17-year soldier with four deployments, are onboard.

“We’re coming up with medals for guys who operate drones and little machines and stuff like that … [but] with this you’re going to have a select few personnel who are going to retire versus [separate] or get kicked out,” Flynn said. “You get a medal for coming in the Army. I don’t see why you can’t have one when you retire from the Army. I think this is more of a meaningful thing.”

Staff Sgt. William Lloyd, assistant chief of operations at the air assault school at Fort Campbell, said he was skeptical about Janotta’s idea.

But Janotta convinced him, too, especially after he explained that the medal may mean more than yet another MSM or ARCOM.

“It’s a nice little addendum to your rack,” said Lloyd, who has 20 years of service and three deployments. “The whole point of awards, anyway, at least in my opinion, is people are proud to wear these awards. You earn it. It makes you stand out. Prior to this, there was nothing, other than a license plate or ball cap, that showed you were retired, so this is kind of neat.”

Janotta’s idea also has one high-profile fan.

Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry, who received the Medal of Honor for his actions in Afghanistan, said the medal could be a good identifier for a retired service member.

“It’s a great pat on the back,” said Petry, who was introduced to the medal by Army Times. “Everybody that served 20-plus years honorably has got my respect, tenfold. It’s a big sacrifice, whether you’re in combat or not in combat, whether you’re in a combat [military occupational specialty] or not.”

Others are not convinced.

“In the context of a bookend award, it makes sense, but the simple truth is that any real warrior that looks at his chest for any type of validation, through rank, awards, etc., is missing the point of what a real warrior is at his very core,” said Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Yurk, who serves in 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division. “I have met guys with almost no awards who I would stack on any door without question, and guys I would not follow to the PX who have a chest full of awards.”

The idea for the medal makes sense, Yurk added, “but the entire award system is flawed, and simply adding another award to fill the hole is not the answer.”

Michael Dunfee, a retired master sergeant, agreed.

“This is a well thought out idea, but I just don’t know how meaningful it would be,” he said. “We already have service stripes, and, honestly, just putting a ribbon on with a number doesn’t bring me any more satisfaction.”

Dunfee also raised issues in the award system, citing as an example that his Legion of Merit, meant for his retirement, was downgraded because of a so-called “quota” arbitrarily imposed by commanders.

“My greatest satisfaction is reflecting on my career and knowing that I made a difference in some soldiers’ careers, especially that most still stay in touch with me,” Dunfee said.

Janotta joined the Army at 18. He has deployed to Iraq three times, completed a stint as a recruiter, and served in units such as the 82nd Airborne Division and the 101st Airborne Division. In other words, he isn’t short on awards and ribbons. His decorations include the Bronze Star, a Defense Meritorious Service Medal, two MSMs, seven ARCOMs, the Combat Infantryman Badge, the Expert Infantryman Badge, the Pathfinder Badge and the Gold Recruiter Badge with three sapphires.

“I don’t want to be one of those people who says, ‘I deserve this,’ ” Janotta said. “The Army owes you nothing. You chose to stay in, but at the end, it’s one of those things that says, ‘This medal represents the two decades of service you gave the Army, the nation.’ ”

Janotta said it isn’t about him donning one of these medals but rather a way to pay tribute to those soldiers who came before him and will join the ranks after. And if it means he’s got to put himself out there a little, so be it.

“It’s not about me,” Janotta said. “This is how traditions and trends get started. Somebody’s got to take one for the team.”

Photo illustration by John Bretschneider. Army Times illustrated what the Army Retirement Medal might look like, based on Sgt. 1st Class Steven Janotta’s designs. The infantryman envisions the medal for soldiers honorably retired with 20 or more years.

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