The inside story of rightful recognition

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Carl Clegg
  • 108th Wing Public Affairs
It was deeply gratifying for me to watch as the first 80 of what will end up being around 2,300 of my fellow New Jersey National Guardsmen received the Humanitarian Service Medal during a ceremony May 3, at the National Guard Armory in Lawrenceville.

As a member of the 108th Wing Public Affairs office, I tell stories about my fellow Airmen; that's what I do. This article too, is about them--though it is a first person account, the effort I made on their behalf--the fight for them to be recognized for service and sacrifice benefits all Guardsmen. 

On the night of Super Storm Sandy, I lay on a military cot and listened to Sandy rage as she passed. I felt concern for my family, but I knew not being there with them was worthwhile. It was a sacrifice I was willing to make, similar to what many of my fellow Guardsmen were doing that night. That sacrifice was driven home to me as I rode in a Humvee through flooded streets in Hoboken the day after the storm, with a rescued mom and her eight-month-old baby who was just about the same age as my daughter. I chose to leave my daughter at home with her mom in order to help my fellow citizens. It was these humanizing experiences that made me passionate about securing this award for every one of my fellow Guardsmen who made a similar sacrifice.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff authorized the HSM for Super Storm Sandy response in September of 2013, but Soldiers and Airmen of the New Jersey National Guard were excluded by a misunderstanding of the award regulation by the DoD. In a Sept. 10, 2015 press release, U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur stated, "Ambiguous language prevented the regulation from being interpreted properly."

When military members have a question about something, they look to the governing regulation for the answer. It was in Department of Defense Manual 1348.33 V. 2 that I found my answer. "The HSM is not the appropriate award to recognize humanitarian operations performed solely by Service members on title 32, U.S.C..." I'm not an attorney and I don't play one on TV. I had to read this sentence many times before I understood what it said. If read without the word "solely," then clearly the National Guard is not eligible for the award, but that word is included for a reason. It is to say the National Guard should not receive the HSM when responding to a localized emergency that does not involve a presidential authorization of federal troops. For example, if you are in the Kansas National Guard and called up to rescue Dorothy and Toto five times in a single tornado season, you are not entitled to the HSM unless a tornado levels Emerald City and active duty troops are called in to augment the Guard by presidential authorization. 

It is important to make it perfectly clear that the HSM is not an active duty award. The DoD, Air Force, and Army award regulations all agree that the National Guard is just as entitled to the award as active duty when it is authorized and when they meet eligibility requirements. As proof, Capt. Anthony Niwore, a document pack-rat of sorts, (we should all so aspire) produced a 2006 document from Col. Tammy Miracle, Chief, Personnel Policy at NGB, authorizing the HSM for its qualifying members who participated in Hurricane Katrina relief.

I wrote an opinion paper about this matter, and went through my chain of command. Underwhelming, I know. I took it as a challenge to get my boss on my side. I did, and his boss and JAG. The difficulty came when it went to the state level. After being told repeatedly by DoD that the Guard was not eligible, state leadership began to concur with that directive.

After finding out that my opinion piece had reach the end of its career like an 80's one-hit-wonder band, I decided to make my congressman aware of the situation. The unfortunate fellow on the other end of the line at the congressman's office was Kyle Melander. I'm sure Kyle would have hung up on me had he known what the next nine months would hold in store for him, but he graciously listened with interest and concern and sent my inquiry on to DoD. The DoD legislative liaison promptly sent my inquiry to the National Guard Bureau. NGB saw merit in my argument and agreed that the Guard was, in fact, entitled to the HSM.

Over the course of several months, the Army immediately referred us to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who subsequently referred us to the Secretary of Defense. On Sept. 2, 2015, MacArthur personally addressed the military leadership in a letter that expanded on my opinion paper. It worked. Three years, almost to the day of Super Storm Sandy, we got our positive reply from the Assistant Secretary of Defense for personnel.

Several 108th Wing members were among the 80 New Jersey National Guardsmen awarded the Humanitarian Service Medal. During the ceremony MacArthur said, "A deep commitment deserves a deep, deep response of gratitude and it is my honor today to express that on behalf of our people."

I agree. As I crisscrossed the state documenting the New Jersey National Guard's response to their neighbors in crisis, I saw humble heroes and selfless servants intertwined with tired hands and wounded hearts. The camouflage uniform expects professionalism, but belies the tenderness and compassion I saw at the shelters.

When New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware and Connecticut are included, more than 5,000 Guardsmen will receive the HSM for their service.