Air Force Marksmanship Ribbon.
A recruit needs to put 95 out of 100 rounds in the target to qualify for an Air Force Marksmanship Ribbon. The Marksmanship Ribbon is a big deal. You get to wear it on your uniform — forever. All the recruits really wanted it. I needed to have it. On day one of small arms training, we learned how to assemble and disassemble the M16. We also spent a lot of time on safety. Not Dick Cheney safety, but real safety. On day two we actually got to fire the rifle. This is a big deal for new recruits and one of the highlights of basic training. This was the first time I’d ever fired a gun. The only other time I fired a weapon was years later in Officer Training School. There, we got to fire a 9mm sidearm. The target was much closer, it didn’t help.
I’ve confessed my lack of hand-eye coordination before so this story shouldn’t be much of a surprise. On that fateful day of small arms training, self-respecting recruits hoped to excel. For the sake of our honor, we needed to excel. Excel and win a cool ribbon for our uniform. With no ribbons and no stripes, you might as well drive a bus. Because my last name started with a Z, I was the last male in a line of over 100 recruits, all anxious to prove their mettle. Laying in the prone position and nervous – waited the 100. We waited in the San Antonio heat and humidity and we sweated like fish. The concrete at the firing range was cool which helped a bit but not nearly enough.
Then, in marched the female recruits. Did I say, female? We were eighteen years old, and it had been months since any of us had seen a female. Yes, women could join the military even way back in my day. Everything was separate though. They had their side of Lackland AFB and we had ours. All training, and of course the barracks and chow halls, were separate so we never saw them. The only time we came together was on the single small arms firing range. One firing range was enough for the Air Force. After all, we weren’t the Army.
As I recall, the first gal in line was gorgeous and so was the gal next to her. Not Lillian gorgeous, but from the same gender. As the female recruits took their places, I glanced over. No, I didn’t stare, and I even removed my cap. Just to be polite. I was cool – hot and sweaty – but cool. We had a little time to exchange a few awkward words. They appeared nervous and looked like they didn’t even want to be here. “So, are you shooting for a Marksmanship Ribbon,” I asked? “Hell no”, they both said. “We couldn’t hit the side of a barn even if we were standing in it,” one of them said. Then I had a brilliant idea. The idea was so great, how could I not win that ribbon. I feared I wouldn’t get enough rounds in my target. I told these two recruits that a Marksmanship Ribbon was important to me. Would they mind shooting at my target I asked? Not all your rounds. . . a few. To help me out. Sure, they said, no problem they said. Now, instead of 100 shots to make the needed 95 I had 300! Well, in theory.
At the command “Commence Fire,” we all fired our 100 bullets in short rounds. A volley of lead echoed up and down the range. As the clouds of smoke grew heavier, my eyes began to burn. After several shots, I looked over at the first female recruit. She had both her eyes closed. The second recruit was even worse. She was shaking and I feared my plan wouldn’t work.
At the command, “Cease Fire” we retrieved our targets. First, each recruit counted the bullet holes in their own target. Next, if you claimed 95 holes or more, a drill instructor needed to certify your score. Certify your score and sign your target. On his signature, you could claim your ribbon. I couldn’t believe it. It must have been a fluke. My target had over 95 bullet holes. I stopped counting at 95 but the drill instructor continued to count. Finally, he stopped. He stopped counting at 150. The drill instructor signed my target! After the drill instructor left, I thanked the two female recruits. I never saw them again.
Air Force Good Conduct Medal. Three years after graduating Basic Training I was awarded a Good Conduct Medal. This is the employee of the quarter medal. Only thing is, it takes three years to get one. To be awarded this medal, you needed to have excellent efficiency reports. But more important than that, you must not have any convictions of court-martial. Not having stabbed anyone recently, I was awarded one. The cool thing about this medal is that Officers don’t get them. For Lieutenants and Captains, and a few Majors, good conduct is a given. Later, as an Officer I attended many formal ceremonies wearing my Dress Blues. Fellow Officers would often ask “What’s that medal for?” Few had ever seen a Good Conduct Medal. I got this in France, I’d say.
The National Defense Medal. In our final week of Basic Training we could earn a real luxury. If we had no demerits and our gear passed inspection, we could request a pass to go to the Base Exchange. To travel, we needed to sign out from the barracks and travel in groups of two or more. Did I say travel? I meant march. We had to march. Hence the need to have at least two recruits. One to call cadence and the other to march out of step. That would be me.
Most of the recruits made a beeline for the cigarette aisle. I didn’t know what to get. But I still had the change from the five dollars my father gave me, so I bought a coke. The other thing we all did was buy our very own National Defense Medal. This medal was authorized by Congress during periods of war or armed conflict. None of us were sure or understood why we got to wear the medal. Vietnam was over. We all called it the BX medal. Nobody gave it to us. We had to go to the BX and buy it. As I walked back from the BX, I noticed two recruits marching and calling cadence. On this day, for some reason, the reality of enlisting in the military hit me. I looked at those soon-to-be Airman Basics. They had no stripes on their sleeves yet were very proud of their National Defense Medal. Then it hit me, those Airmen Basics were the price of freedom, ready to die if needed. According to our Nation, they were expendable. So was I.