Sailors and Marines must master many skills over the course of their military careers. Some, such as marksmanship, have their own systems of instruction and advancement. One skill, however, regularly gets overlooked—award writing. Junior personnel often do not receive adequate mentoring or training on writing citations.
There is a long and carefully structured manual (SecNav M-1650.1) addressing Navy and Marine Corps awards from combat actions to unit citations, but it overly formalizes award writing: Begin with the standard introduction and opening sentence, then add the position or special responsibilities being acknowledged, followed by the award period. Dash in a few sentences about what actually happened, and end with one of two closing sentence options that all award citations must have. There is even a list of common attributes that can be used. Citations become formulaic and thus impersonal.
When crafting a citation, there are really only a few sentences in the middle where the writer has any room for creativity. This is akin to fitness report writing in the extreme. End of tour awards may need to describe years of accomplishments in this small space. Here is where award writing becomes an art form. Undersell the accomplishment, and the recipient may wonder if the writer knew anything about what happened—or the approval authority could downgrade the award. Oversell the accomplishment and you risk making an award-worthy action seem like nonsense. The challenge is in striking a proper balance.
Sailors and Marines likely will keep their citations for their entire lives. The words should not only reflect the actions undertaken, but also stir emotion. Reading the award citation years later should bring back memories and a sense of pride. No one should read their award and think, “Meh.” Awards reflect hard work, tribulation, and success, culminating in a certificate and bit of metal. They get their meaning from the action, not the ribbon. The citation should describe the importance of that action.
For individuals who need another reason to invest effort in writing an award, consider it an opportunity for personal growth, as well as learning how to better craft your own fitness report. Summarizing someone else’s actions requires putting yourself in their boots. This perspective can make you aware of what you do and do not know about the individual and the situation. You will have to ask questions to craft a suitable citation.
It also requires an objectivity that you likely do not have when writing about your personal accomplishments. It might be likened to an artist growing and improving by occasionally being a critic. Understanding the perspective of an evaluator, and the questions to be asked, can give you a better appreciation for the process as well as better skills for drafting your own accomplishments when the time inevitably comes to be on the receiving end of judgment.
Too many sailors and Marines view award writing as just another administrative burden to be completed when someone serving under their authority reaches the end of their tour. Make it more than that. Make award writing an opportunity to revel in the growth of your personnel. Spend as much or more time working on their accomplishments as you might your own fitness report. People will notice the difference.