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Editor’s note: Eilhys England contributed to this column.

I’ve never met a combat infantry vet who didn’t treasure his Combat Infantryman Badge. It’s the only award I wear on my civvy suit and display in my office, and it takes precedence over all others.

Believe me, I’m proud of that sucker.

And yet the CIB is not really tough to get if an infantryman is willing to do the death dance. Since its inception in 1943, millions of CIBs have been awarded to infantry soldiers from Guadalcanal and North Africa to the mean streets and trails of Afghanistan and Iraq.

The CIB means the wearer served in ground combat as an infantryman tasked to take out enemy grunts with exactly the same agenda. It also means he probably: lived like an animal in an underground hole or bunker for long periods while mortar and artillery shells thumped down all around him; slogged through the horrors of knee-high mud, which can reduce unopposed movement to a mile a day and make digging a foxhole an exhausting, slo-mo exercise in futility; and endured the blazing sun, the freezing cold, the ubiquitous dust that clogs every pore, the miserable rains that soak and chill to the bone and turn living on the ground into the ultimate nightmare. And, of course, there’s the unrelenting, ever-present second-by-second promise of sudden, violent death.

The standard to get the CIB has always been reasonably well-guarded, which hasn’t been the case with other valor awards. Through the years, the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, Bronze Star and Commendation Medal for Valor, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal for Valor have unfortunately been depreciated mainly by too many glory-hunting officers who’ve sold their souls for hero medals at the expense of their honor and to the disgust of their soldiers.

Of course, no awards system is foolproof, and there have also been abuses with the CIB. I can personally cite dozens of perps, starting with Gen. S.L.A. Marshall and even complete units during Desert Storm who claimed the badge when they didn’t deserve it.

At least the CIB hasn’t been degraded to the extent of other awards. And the Army is to be commended for sticking to the original regulations, which broadly state that the requirements are to have served under fire with an infantry or Special Forces regimental-size or smaller unit and hold an infantry MOS (Military Occupational Specialty).

But times change. In Iraq, our overstretched army just doesn’t have the infantry manpower to do all the dirty infantry jobs. Cannon-cockers, tankers, cavalry troopers, combat engineers and MPs have parked their machines and big guns and are patrolling, defending and getting shot at while living in bunkers just like their infantry brothers. Infantry soldiers are no longer the only troopers fighting as infantrymen.

“My boys did mounted and dismounted patrols in very hot places,” writes an artillery sergeant just back from Iraq. “They didn’t have infantry experience, but through almost a year of infantry assignments and learning the hard way we turned into hardened infantrymen who were praised by our infantry brigade CO [commanding officer]. In the end, we performed many infantry missions and became expert infantry fire teams. My Redlegs (artillerymen) took on the hard assignments such as Cordon and Search Ops, Tactical Check Points and dismounted patrols, manned and defended OPs, conducted air mobile operations (day /night), did site security (upfront and personal) and convoy escorts. We operated exactly as our infantry brothers, and now because of inflexible Army regs, I can’t get my troops the CIB.”

The sergeant’s unit, the 1/320th Artillery out of the famed 101st Division at Fort Campbell, supported my infantry battalion in Vietnam. Although the artillerymen frequently fought as infantry while defending their cannons, we all agreed back then that it wasn’t CIB duty.

This time around, the 1/320th – with six soldiers killed and 23 wounded – has already received a bundle of well-deserved valor and meritorious awards for the infantry duties. And in my book, the 1/320th and the other non-infantry dragooned into infantry service in Iraq more than qualify for the esteemed Combat Infantryman Badge.

The war against terrorism has changed the world, and it’s about time the U.S. Army changed the regulations governing the award of the CIB. If a grunt walks the infantry walk, the badge should be his.

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