The Northern Ireland Medal by John L. Neel

A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.” ~ Napoleon Bonaparte

In the US Army, soldiers are given medals for everything, service, good conduct, achievement, and heroism. I was given my first ribbon, the National Defense Ribbon, as I graduated from Basic Training, having achieved nothing at that point but a month and two weeks of service. American Soldiers, like most soldiers around the world, also wear badges, cords, and patches attesting to their training, affiliations, and history, both personal and unit.

By the time I joined the Paras, I wore twelve ribbons for various things and the Combat Infantry Badge, 82nd Airborne Combat patch, and Master Parachute Wings.

The British Soldier is a different sort. A British Soldier, back in 1988, normally wore only one medal, the General Service medal with Northern Ireland clasp. The younger soldiers wore nothing. If you saw someone with two medals, that soldier was probably a soldier awarded for heroism. There were the few who had been to the Falklands still serving, like Baz Bardsley, who won the Military Medal for his actions at Goose Green.

Kim and I hosted Baz and his wife at our place for dinner in Church Crookham before he was posted to my old battalion, replacing CSGT Johnson on the People Exchange Program. He served as Platoon Sergeant for Scouts 2-505, Infantry Platoon Sergeant, and First Sergeant of Charlie 2-505 in the Gulf War.  For that, the United States Army awarded Baz our Bronze Star and Combat Infantry Badge. Baz died in 2014.

When I joined up with 1 Para in the winter of 1988, they had just returned from Northern Ireland. They were all wearing their NI Medals and suffering the loss of one of their close friends, Sergeant Michael B. Matthews, killed in a bomb explosion. My first parade with them was to his memorial service in Aldershot.

These fantastic soldiers and paratroopers were extremely proud of their Northern Ireland Medals.

There I was , a Yank, with a chest full of medals, assigned to a close-knit group of guys, in a very exclusive unit, who wasn't in NI with them, who had not earned his way.  The Parachute Regiment is a very exclusive fraternity.

My ribbons became a point of a lot of not-so-good-natured ribbing, especially when the lager was flowing. The guys would walk up to me in the mess and poke a medal and demand that I tell them why I was wearing it. Sometimes they would make up  reasons, like getting to work on time four days out of five, able to identify an M-16 at fifty meters, finding my way out of the woods, and so on.

I learned to wear only my top medals, the Bronze Star, The Meritorious Service Medal, the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal (Grenada), my Combat Infantry Badge, and my Master Wings. I took to wearing my British Wings on my right shoulder in their fashion, wore my 505PIR Unit Crest on my right chest and the Parachute Regiment left and right collar insignia, “Dogs,” on my shoulder loops.

I tried to earn their respect by wearing what they wore, carrying what they carried, drinking what they drank, learning from them, and never saying, “This is how we do it.” I learned their tactics, drill, drinking songs, vocabulary, and slang. At my Dining In, I passed the Regimental Sergeant Major's test of Drinking The Yard of Ale, a “New Tradition” he made up just for me, by downing three pints of Bitters without letting the yard-long glass or the beer move from my lips.

As I made friends, the chatter over my ribbons only increased, but now it was in fun. I learned to give as good as I got, making up wild stories for my ribbons like conducting a free-fall jump from the Moon.

When I was leaving, headed to my second assignment to Turkey, the battalion held a big party in the Warrant Officers and Sergeant's Mess called a Dining Out. There was much drinking and slapping on the back, a few rowdy speeches and antidotes about my time in the regiment. The lads, now my Mates, were letting it all hang out. They told rousing stories and funny tales about my time In the Depot, with 1 Para and C Company. Rand mentioned my lack of basketball skills, Alan the sheep swatting story, Steve reminded me of my Bergan watching duties, Spike mentioned my head in the toilet after the yard-of-ale, and Blackie my fondness for cake.

Even the RSM tried to get in on the fun.

He called me forward and before he presented me with my going away gift, he reminded us all of something he had heard.

When the Colonel of the Regiment, Price Charles, came to review the battalion, I was the Platoon Sergeant of 8 Platoon, C Company. I would be required to give commands to my platoon in a very public event and I had to do it flawlessly. One thing you didn't do was mess up in the RSM's Parade. The RSM suggested, through  the Provo-Sergeant, the RSM's right-hand-man, that, perhaps, I should turn my platoon over to a British Soldier, like my Corporal, Jerry Long, so the commands would sound British.

I declined. I sent the Provo back to the RSM to tell him that I was the Platoon Sergeant, I had this, and that I would happily be on RSM's Punishment if I screwed it up.

I had CPL Long practice me  until I could do a respectable job, then I put him close in the formation to whisper, in case I forgot my next command. Practices and the event went without a problem and later, the RSM complimented me on my Drill. I told him, “RSM, I was just moving my mouth and CPL Long was giving the Commands.”

He relayed this to the Mess and there was an immediate uproar of laughter. All the guys knew the truth, but I still believe that the RSM believed what I had told him.

He was on a roll. Next, he asked, as I hoped someone would, “We know you Yanks Love Medals and that you'll be given a medal for being over here with us, what do you think it will be?”

I had them! It was now time to get back at them for the whole two years, for this night, for every practical joke, and for all the radio batteries in my rucksack.

I became VERY SERIOUS.

RSM. Mates. My country loves and respects the British Empire and needs the friendship which our two countries share.”

I was in Speech Mode.

My Army and the 82nd Airborne believe this job, this Exchange, to be one of the premier positions in the peace-time army. They believe we have much to learn from the Paras. I have been lucky enough to have that job and I have tried to learn so that I can pass your expertise to my future soldiers. Because of its importance, I will be awarded two medals for this posting, my second Overseas Service Medal and the very prestigious Meritorious Service Medal.”

Everyone was nodding and agreeing, sure in their own self worth and importance.

And...”

When I depart Heathrow, because I will be flying over Northern Ireland,...

I will be awarded your Northern Ireland Medal.”

The Mess went dead silent.

I stood there for as long as I dared, then said...

Gotcha!