Sunday, January 6

Deck the Hollow-Points

When it comes to decorating Christmas trees, how much is too much?

As the Santa season gradually made its way to the forefront of our thoughts here at regiment, the battered old baubles and straggled strands of tinsel have been unearthed from the basement as malnourished needleless trees were hastily crammed into cleaning buckets filled with scorched earth in a belated, vain attempt at festiveness. Sorry, but as much as I’d like (which is not very much, to be honest), Christmas has just never felt like Christmas here in the Legion.

This Christmas was my fifth in the French Foreign Legion, my last. Incidentally it was only my second at my own regiment, the first three having been spent in basic training, Djibouti and Afghanistan respectively. Last year was a breath of fresh air, a Christmas day spent with friends in Paris having exited the regiment earlier that morning. Christmas 2012, however, felt more like an obstacle to be overcome on the path to freedom than any real celebration. One last masquerade to endure. Legio Patria Nostra? Chacun son truc.

General Saint Chamas – Commandant de la Légion Étrangère – recently visited the regiment on the beginning of his tour of all the Legion regiments undertaken over the Christmas period. Obliged to don our parade uniforms (albeit parade combats, as opposed to parade dress uniform) for a freezing cold morning assembly, the dreaded order boomed over the PA system:

“Récipionnaires, gagnez vos emplacements”

A collective (if somewhat muffled) groan rumbled through the assembled ranks. The sheer volume of men marching toward the general was nothing short of astounding. Almost 30 legionnaires – rank and file through NCOs and on to officers – lined up before Big Daddy Legion, chests puffed out waiting for that all-important medal to be pinned on.

Medals like the three – THREE – I and every other French soldier serving in Afghanistan were awarded. Six months, three medals. A tad excessive if you ask me, certainly considering that one of those three medals is only a recent addition to the mix, meaning that soldiers deployed to Afghanistan prior to my own foray were not awarded NATO’s Non-Article 5 medal. I don’t know why – something to do with the period in which they were deployed (this might help) - but in general, I couldn’t give a shit. Sure, a medal is a nice acknowledgement of a tour of duty, but THREE medals for one 6-month tour. It stinks a bit too much of prissy little bitches-on-high looking for shiny objects to fill in the blank spaces on their uniforms. Typical.

The medals being handed out on this particular morning were of a different variety, however. La croix de la valeur militaire is a medal awarded for feats of exceptional bravery or to those who have exceeded their duties in extremely challenging circumstances. Guys shot and wounded on patrol, guys rushing to the aid and evacuation of those shot and wounded on patrol. Deserved, no doubt. But then the awards moved down the line to those who “heard shots fired when on guard duty, and reported it to their supervisors”. Seriously? Or what about he who “came under fire on patrol and took cover accordingly”. A medal? For that? For succumbing to a reflex honed within the first month of basic training? Bizarrely, my grumblings were easily drowned out amongst the grumbling of non-recipients wondering where their medal was.

“If they get one, then we should too. We were all over there doing that same shit!” hissed one colleague.

The point, it appeared, had been successfully (and spectacularly) missed.

The criteria for awarding these medals should be tightened, instead of dishing them out like candy. The weight of 3 medals hanging off one’s chest after one single overseas mission is already disproportionately burdensome. Do we really need another? Officers with quotas to fill, boxes to tick, left-over shrapnel carved into something shiny needing a new home.  Terms like “veteran” and “war hero” start getting bandied about when, in reality, the majority of us did our job, nothing more. To almost indiscriminately toss out supplementary medals such as the Croix de la Valeur Militaire is to insult and deflate the recognition owed to those select few who truly deserve it.

So angry was I after the ridiculously long-winded ceremony that I had a good mind to pack up my medals and ship them off to someone more deserving, say the teachers of Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Sometimes the hypocrisy and self-serving politics of this army can be overwhelming. But then so too can the pinning of a shiny new medal on your chest.

Go figure.