The vastly different lives of two American brothers — one dying for ISIS, the other having served in the U.S. Navy — is a thread the wider media quickly spun off from the horrific shootings in San Bernadino.
Most of the resulting stories that highlight the Naval service of Syed Raheel Farook, brother of shooter Syed Rizwan Farook, refer to him as “decorated.”
There’s just one problem: He’s not. To a casual, civilian observer, he might be, but to just about any military veteran, “decorated” is not at all accurate. Full disclosure, I served in the Marine Corps from ’05 to ’09 and deployed twice to Iraq. I have more awards than Farook, but I am not “decorated.”
Reports indicate Navy records show Farook was awarded the National Defense Service Medal, Good Conduct Medal, Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, and Sea Service Deployment Ribbon.
His highest award — the National Defense Service Medal — is awarded when you sign on the dotted line, enlisting in a time of war. Certainly nothing to shrug about, but to further flesh out how military culture views this award, I’ll say my drill instructors referred to it as a “fire watch” ribbon … meaning I and anyone else who signed with me got it for simply showing up.
I guess we’re all decorated then.
Service is tough, there’s no two ways about it. Farook did a “combat” deployment with the Navy aboard the USS Enterprise. Certainly, life aboard a ship isn’t as comfortable as life in your mom’s basement.
Nevertheless, this line up of “awards and decorations,” as one military official put it to Buzzfeed, really only amounts to the military version of participation trophies. I don’t say that to diminish them — I’m most intensely proud of my Iraqi Campaign Medal (not at all an endorsement of the invasion) — I use the phrase “participation trophies” because we tend to reserve the term “decorated” amongst ourselves to refer to awards earned for valor in combat.
There’s no hard and fast rule, of course. There’s no Pentagon order (believe it or not) for use of the term “decorated.” Buzzfeed, upon my appeal, I believe, amended their headline to drop the word “decorated,” but it still remains strewn across the web, and across news organizations that look upon themselves as reputable.
Reputable would actually take the 11 seconds to look up the requirements for such awards, rather than simply repeating the list from a public record — one the military willingly provides — and tacking “decorated” onto the headline because it sounds fancier … or for whatever reason, ignorance perhaps.
Not only does flippant use of the word inadvertently diminish those who are actually decorated, it signals a troubling divide between the military and the people responsible for holding it to account: the public and the media.