Copyright (c) 1997, Roanoke Times

DATE: Tuesday, March 11, 1997                TAG: 9703110055


RECENT articles in the media have presented a terribly distorted view of blood-pinning. A venerable military tradition has been smeared by the actions of an unrepresentative few. In real practice, blood-pinning boosts the dignity of individual service members as it supports the mission of the armed forces.

Blood-pinning is a ceremony in which a newly earned award - such as parachutist wings or insignia of increased rank - is pounded into the chest of the soldier being honored. Traditionally, fellow soldiers file past the awardee, punch the newly pinned award one time, then shake his hand. This usually causes pain and bleeding, but no serious injury.

A critical element of military preparedness is the cohesion among soldiers within its units. Blood-pinning, as one of many means for recognizing the accomplishments of a unit's members, promotes the cohesion of individual units. As such, the tradition has a role to play in accomplishing the armed forces' mission.

Unit cohesion - the level of personal bonding in a military organization - is an invaluable asset to military preparedness. Numerous studies have noted that soldiers, in the thick of combat, fight more for each other than for abstract ideals such as freedom or national honor. There is a demonstrated, direct correlation between a unit's cohesiveness and its military effectiveness.

Understanding the role of blood-pinning brings forth other points that are easily forgotten in the wake of the Marine episode.

Blood-pinning is voluntary. Only those who want to be congratulated by their peers with a punch to their newly-earned award participate. Only those who "accept" blood-pinning have the authority to "deliver" it. In my experience, roughly half the soldiers choose to receive blood-pinning. Those who decline the opportunity do not face any ridicule. The congratulations they receive from their fellow soldiers are no less sincere.

Blood-pinning is supervised. Leaders, usually commanders, first present an award to their soldiers, and make clear by word and deed that the purpose of blood-pinning is to congratulate rather than to humiliate, to build up rather than to break down. Since the purpose of blood-pinning is to promote unit cohesion, blood-pinning makes sense only in units where many of the soldiers want to participate.

That is why the images of Marines brutally beating their fellow Marines, seen on television and in numerous newspapers, thoroughly misrepresent how blood-pinning is practiced and what it accomplishes. The conduct of those Marines was absolutely inexcusable. It reflected either ignorance of or disdain for the role of blood-pinning in a military unit. No wonder only nine Marines from that platoon are still on active duty: A well-led unit would have retained many more of its personnel.

At its heart, blood-pinning is a small-unit activity. Its purpose is to bond soldiers who know each other, work together and may one day fight to save one another. If blood-pinning becomes abusive, the problem - and the solution - is at the platoon or company level. There is no need for politicians or senior military leaders to micromanage an issue best handled by small-unit leaders.

If, in an overreaction to a misinformed public opinion, senior military leaders ban all blood-pinning ceremonies, a venerable and still-valuable tradition would end.

PETER KILNER,a graduate student in philosophy at Virginia Tech, is a 1990 graduate of West Point who recently commanded an airborne infantry company at Fort Bragg, N. C. The opinions here are his own.

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by CNB