Norman Bowker, in "Speaking of Courage," has won seven medals from his Vietnam tour of duty: the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Air Medal, the Army Commendation Medal, the Bronze Star, and the Purple Heart. But he is one short: the Silver Star. He might have won this if he would have helped save Kiowa from the shitfield. He obviously suffers from survivor's guilt, and his subsequent suicide suggests that no amount of medals would have been enough to save Norman.
Norman's father's generation (World War II) better assimilated back into civilian life. Apparently, in Norman's eyes at least, their medals were emblems of honor that came with winning a war. But Norman feels undeserving of his since his comrades lost the war and their best man, Kiowa. No amount of material possessions can replace the emotional losses of war.
One of the great blunders of the French in Indochina was to set up camp (Dien Bien Phu) at the bottom of an upturned tortoise shell. Jimmy Cross makes the same mistake in the events that led up to Kiowa's death. The story is analogous to both the American and French involvement in the war: it smelled from the beginning. Cross, O'Brien, and now Bowker all share the guilt. Cross bears it during the war; Bowker and O'Brien suffer from it in its post-war form.
In "Speaking of Courage," Bowker drives counter-clockwise in his Iowa hometown on the Fourth of July in an attempt to turn back the clock. Bowker's father never appears in the story, but his shadow hangs over it. Bowker's father believes that medals represent come kind of courage, but Bowker ultimately finds them meaningless--not that he didn't exhibit courage in war, but because words like "courage" and "honor" ultimately ring hollow. Since Vietnam, there's been a sea-change in what these words mean and how long their meanings last. No words, or medals, can take away the personal and collective guilt for losing Kiowa, the war, and his childhood.