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Military pushes overhaul of medal system Add to ...

The military is recommending an overhaul of its medal system to address a growing number of complaints that have overshadowed the glittering honours awarded to troops who serve overseas.

National Defence has conducted a "sweeping review" and put forward recommendations for the federal cabinet which are expected to include the creation of a single medal to recognize all overseas service, The Canadian Press has learned.

The military's senior policy adviser on medals and citations said the proposals are meant to simplify a system that has become "complicated" by different deployments, under different mandates.

The confusion and lack of recognition for some soldiers has led to bitterness and the occasional letter of protest from members and their families.

"We've done a major review that will have significant consequences in the way we recognize our people," said Major Carl Gauthier, who is in charge of creating new medals and modifying the rules for existing ones.

"We're going to make some recommendations to try [to]simplify the recognition framework for Afghanistan."

Who gets recognized and under what circumstances is often the subject of intense, emotional debate among those uniform, who sometimes complain the regulations governing awards arbitrary and political.

Hundreds of soldiers who were part of the first battle group into Kandahar at the beginning of the latest mission in 2006 were denied a long-promised campaign star medal because they did not serve enough time under NATO command.

Instead, members of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry battle group - who spent most of their tour under U.S. command in Operation Enduring Freedom - were awarded the Southwest Asia Service Medal.

Defence sources say one of the key proposals is the creation of an overseas service medal, similar to the Volunteer Service Medal given out to Canadian soldiers who served at least 18 months away from home during the Second World War.

Maj. Gauthier would not talk about specific recommendations, but said the Defence Department has heard the complaints of soldiers, sailors and aircrew whose missions are not covered by the existing set of awards, such as the General Campaign Star and the Southwest Asia Service Medal.

Some troops also want recognition of multiple tours - an important acknowledgment for men and women who have been faced with up to four six-month stint in Kandahar in less than 10 years.

"There are still gaps in the way we recognize service overseas that we are trying to address," Maj. Gauthier said.

An outside observer may not see much difference between the two medals, but front-line soldiers tend to covet the campaign star, which with its International Security Force (ISAF) bar.

It is recognition that they've been in Afghanistan facing a hostile enemy, unlike the Southwest Asia medal which is also awarded to shipboard crews and headquarters staff who've served at posts as far removed as the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla.

Unlike the United States and Britain, Canada has no specific service recognition for combat soldiers. There are bravery medals for specific acts of heroism, including the newly minted Canadian Victoria Cross.

Former chief of defence staff General Rick Hillier aimed to change that with the creation of a combat infantry badge, but the plan was quietly dropped last spring.

It is not the first controversy over military medals.

The Conservative government launched, with much fanfare, the Sacrifice Medal, which was meant to recognize those wounded and killed in combat. But the first ceremony was postponed indefinitely because the award only recognized soldiers who'd fought in Afghanistan and not on sometimes perilous peacekeeping missions.

Maj. Gauthier was not swayed on the question of awarding Princess Patricia's troops a campaign star.

"When we're in the business of medal design and medals criteria, we're in the business of drawing lines. You either qualify or you don't. We have to balance recognition for recognition for people and also the respect and integrity for the honour system. For the medals to be worth something, we have to make sure the criteria is clear, that is applied consistently and fairly for everyone."

The changes to be considered by cabinet and eventually the Governor General would not be retroactive, nor affect medals already handed out.

"We will not rewrite history. We are not going to try to untangle the past. We're going to try to make the future simpler," Maj. Gauthier said.

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