Should we really “pin them where they win them”

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WASHINGTON — Active duty Air Force members who have changed stations in the recent past (approximately the last ten years or so) are likely to have experienced a push to get their PCS decoration written and awarded before PCSing so that their shop, or even their commander, can present the medal prior to the member’s departure to the next assignment. The preference to do so indicates a service-wide consensus that it is more valuable for a member to receive a medal at the unit they are departing from than to be awarded the medal at their new unit.

The logic of this approach seems to be that “pin it where they win it” is a final token of gratitude for a job well done from the losing unit; a capstone event to honor a tour of duty well-spent. This is obviously a worthwhile sentiment, and dragging out the medal process for months (as sometimes happens) is not good for anyone. But it is also worth asking what opportunities we might be missing by not awarding the medal at the gaining unit.

Having worked in the maintenance career field (usually in very large squadrons) for over ten years now, I have attended hundreds of medal presentations. The ones that have been most memorable to me are not necessarily the medals that I have written for departing members, but the medals I heard presented to incoming members from other units. Why does this happen? A medal presentation very similar to those we as leaders have written or heard dozens of times dilutes the impact on the audience member through repetition. It is boring to listen to someone receiving a medal for achievements that are day-in-day-out familiar to everyone in the room. This doesn’t diminish the importance and meaning for the recipient by any means, but part of the honor we bestow to someone is acknowledging the distinctive quality of their success. In a unit of 600 maintainers, you hear the same medals over and over, and as best we try to avoid it there can be a sense of just going through the motions, only changing the body the medal is being placed upon.

Perhaps knowing that a medal citation will serve as an introduction of the member to his or her new unit would challenge us to write better citations (and give us more exposure to others’ best practices in writing them). Hearing the awesome achievements of someone in their previous unit (doing a mission you might be unfamiliar with) can be an eye-opening experience. It is a great way to see the breadth and previous achievements of a member who is new to the family, and a great way to have a topic of conversation, establish rapport and build connections.

As leaders, we tend to fall into patterns of behavior. All of us have heard (and many of us have probably repeated) “plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery,” “don’t re-invent the wheel,” etc. So as we challenge ourselves to innovate and to rebuild the squadron, maybe one small thing we can do is to reconsider the wisdom of the “pin them where they win them” idea. As a leader, the final thing I can do for an Airman I am sending to a new assignment is to set them up for success by showcasing their talent and achievements to their new leadership, helping to instill confidence in their new team that they are getting a quality Airman worthy of recognition. Perhaps repeating shopworn award citations to an audience that is extremely familiar with the content is not the best way to accomplish this.