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  • Military medals: What do they represent?
  • Author avatar
    Steven Alvarez

Military medals: What do they represent?

Ask any military veteran how they feel about military medals and you will get a different answer every time. For some, their military medals were earned silently underneath the surface of the oceans of the world on patrol with the U.S. Navy. Others earned theirs flying above a disaster zone in an Army National Guard helicopter, delivering much-needed food and water to victims of the natural world’s wrath. And in a jungle in Central America, U.S. Air Force engineers earned their military medals constructing a base where before there was only a swamp as U.S. Marine Corps mechanics thousands of miles away earned theirs keeping a fleet moving during offensive operations overseas.

Most military personnel have earned a military medal for doing something beyond what is expected. At their core, military medals represent going above and beyond, exceeding expectations, but sometimes a military medal is awarded solely for participation in a campaign or operation. But make no mistake, military medals like the National Defense Service Medal, the Iraq Campaign Medal (ICM), Korea Defense Service Medal (KDSM), for example, are not like a child’s participation trophy where everyone on the team gets one. These medals represent a willingness to do something when others would not. It might mean a willingness to raise a right hand, take an oath and serve like millions did after 9-11, or it might reflect dedication to serve in a faraway place like Afghanistan. These military medals represent the unspoken sacrifices that our men and women in uniform make for our country. The awards tell everyone that those who wear it on their uniforms bore witness to history.

The ICM, for example, is for service in Iraq from 2004 to 2011. This military medal for some represents months and years of separation from loved ones in often dangerous conditions. It can, for many veterans, represent the conditions they endured during their deployment, or the victories and losses. While not a personal decoration, military medals like the ICM can be held in high regard or be a source of pride because of what they represent. For those who wear it the military medal is more than just about serving in Iraq. It is about being a part of making history in Iraq.

Although the U.S. military mostly now watches over the peace in South Korea, the KDSM also represents sacrifices endured by U.S. military members and their families, but the military medal also shows a serious commitment by those who served there and kept the tip of the spear sharp through rigorous training and professional execution of their assigned missions to deter North Korea from ever attacking again.

Most military veterans downplay the significance of military medals that are awarded for service simply because all they have to do is show up in a particular area of the world, during a specific period of time in our American history. Those military medals are important because they reflect the level of experience a person might bring to the table. A food services soldier might have experience making meals for a battalion in field conditions, but that same soldier might bring a different skill set to an organization if he or she has fed troops under fire. They might have extraordinary improvisational skills because of challenges they faced downrange. Those military medals reflect anecdotes that are a part of a veteran’s history.  

Like millions of other U.S. military personnel, I was decorated with military medals for my service in Iraq. My decorations were earned trying to tell the story of the U.S. military and its coalition partners in Iraq. Many of my counterparts were decorated with their military medals for different reasons like protecting our base, guarding convoys, keeping a steady stream of supplies flowing, processing personnel actions, training Iraqi forces, setting up communication networks, you name it. All of us had different roles, all of us contributed in different ways to the overall mission and the military medals we earned shows that we are all valuable. 

Military medals that are presented for personal achievement or bravery are considered decorations. Usually these are the military medals that veterans hold in highest regard because they represent the individual contribution of a uniformed military member to a mission or campaign. 

Depending on the military medal that is presented, a decoration can reflect the depth, breadth and bravery of an individual’s contribution during a given operation. In some extreme cases the military medals represent the ultimate sacrifice made by many of our men and women in uniform.

We had several soldiers at Multinational Security Transition Command Iraq make the ultimate sacrifice during my tour and posthumous military medals were presented during memorial ceremonies. Along those lines, several personnel earned Purple Hearts in our unit, but the two I recall were Air Force computer technicians who sustained wounds when their vehicle was attacked by terrorists using an IED. They were traveling to install a communications network. Our general pinned their awards to their pajama tops in the hospital. Enemy violence does not discriminate.

The military medals system is subjective and far from perfect. Spend enough time in uniform and you will hear stories of people rising up to challenges, performing Herculean feats and committing actions under fire that are nothing short of heroic. Our military personnel earn their military medals by serving during periods of crises, in conflicts and by distinguishing themselves.

To me, the question should not be “What do military medals represent?” Better said it should be “Who do military medals represent?”

For those that serve, military medals remind us of those who we have served, and those who have stood alongside of us in formation. For a military veteran, a Humanitarian Service Medal might stir memories of a smiling Haitian child given his first meal several days after a hurricane destroyed his nation. A Military Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal might trigger thoughts of the kids at a Korean orphanage where an NCO volunteered as an English instructor. A Meritorious Service Medal might be looked upon by the recipient in fondness when she remembers the troops she commanded. A posthumous Medal of Honor might cause a former teammate to reflect on the sacrifices the awardee made for others.

Military medals represent the many faces of those military veterans have served; they represent those to our left and right, who stand with us shoulder to shoulder and military medals represent those who are no longer with us.

They are for veterans, precious metals.

  • Author avatar
    Steven Alvarez