The soldier who got an Army medal for programming

One veteran shares his tale of being recognized for using his coding skills to make his military unit more efficient

Picture of Vivin Paliath's Army Commendation MedalImage credit: Vivin Paliath
Vivin Paliath's Army Commendation Medal, which he was awarded for his programming work

The military likes to give out medals to recognize the service of its members. Most of us know that medals can be earned for heroism, injury sustained in combat and good conduct. You probably don’t know, however, that you can also earn a medal for writing code.

I certainly didn’t know that programming skills could earn you a medal from the U.S. Army until I read Vivin Paliath’s story last week. Paliath wrote on his blog about how he earned such a medal for his technical skills. Paliath was a logistic and supplies specialist in the National Guard when his unit was deployed to Iraq in 2005. He had earned a degree in computer systems engineering and, before his deployment, worked as a programmer and systems engineer. 

In the Army, his job was to do things like order parts for mechanics, dispatch vehicles, and issue licenses to soldiers. All of this was done using a DOS-based application (yes, a DOS-based application in 2005) called Unit Level Logistics System – Ground (ULLS-G) and it involved a lot of manual input and repetition. Using his programming background, after finding an ODBC driver for the ULLS-G system, Paliath took the initiative to write Perl scripts and Excel macros to automate and greatly speed up many of his tasks. His squad leader was so impressed that he recommended Paliath for an Army Commendation Medal, which he was awarded shortly before his unit left Iraq late in 2006.

I was fascinated by this story, so I contacted Paliath to a learn a little more about his experience coding in the Army. Not surprisingly, he said, that, aside from the coding he did for the ULLS-G system, he didn’t have much time to do other programming. As for whether there was much opportunity, in general, for soldiers interested in software development to pursue it, Paliath noted that the Army encourages people to take online courses for college credit, but added: 

“It largely depends on what your MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) in the Army is, since that's basically your job in the military. It was mainly because of my background in software engineering that I decided to try and streamline the process, but it technically wasn't part of my job description. However, there are definitely possibilities for programming in other MOS's like intelligence or signals. There is also an organization within the Army (based in Ft. Lee, I think) that works on developing software for the Army. But in general, the Army doesn't focus a lot on software engineering or programming.”

It turns out that Paliath’s experience isn’t unique. His story generated a thread on Hacker News in which several other people shared their experiences of being recognized by the military for using their programming and tech skills. One reader wrote that he picked up VBA while stationed in Afghanistan with the Canadian Army and used it to automate and speed up a number of things in Excel, including ordering medical evacuations for injured personnel. He said he received a commendation and subsequently decided to pursue software engineering as a career.

Another reader shared his experience with the Army in 1984 when he was stationed in West Germany. After fixing a database that crashed, he says he, too, received a commendation.

No list of people being recognized by the military for their programming prowess, however, would be complete without Grace Hopper, who was famously promoted to Rear Admiral in recognition of her computing work. The Navy also named a data center after her, as well as a destroyer, the USS Hopper.

There you have it. Software development can not only lead to a great job with great pay these days, but it also could also get you a medal. Who knew?

Read more of Phil Johnson's #Tech blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Phil on Twitter at @itwphiljohnson. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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