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  • Military Ribbons: More Than A Résumé on a Chest
  • Author avatar
    Steven Alvarez

Military Ribbons: More Than A Résumé on a Chest

Military Ribbon Rack
They resemble tiny bricks and they are all colored and patterned differently. Some are adorned with tiny brass items; letters, numerals, leaves and stars, and some are framed, but we know because they are placed so prominently on a military person’s uniform that they are important to the people who wear them. Usually those who are junior in rank have less on their military ribbon racks, if they have one at all. But the older, more seasoned veterans, have multiple rows of the colored ribbons climbing upward from their chest to their shoulders, as many lines of ribbons on their chests, they have on their faces. Although lightweight while on the uniform, some of those military ribbon racks have proven to be hard-earned, heavy in the weight that was carried in the form of stress, danger, physical work and in some cases memories that cannot be unseen.

A military ribbon rack is a résumé that tells those who know how to read them, where a person has been, what they have experienced, what they know and what they are capable of. But more importantly it tells us about their character and how they live their lives. Simply put, military ribbon racks do not just tell us what medals and decorations a person has earned. Instead, they tell us who the person is. And like each individual who wears them, military ribbon racks are unique. Despite the fact that thousands of individuals might be wearing the same ribbon, each of them earned it their own way.

Combat Action Ribbon
Take, for example, the Combat Action Ribbon. According to the U.S. Marine Corps, this ribbon is awarded to members of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Coast Guard (when the Coast Guard or units thereof operate under the control of the Navy) in the grade of captain/colonel and below, who have actively participated in ground or surface combat.

The Combat Action Ribbon earned by a Coast Guardsman protecting oil platforms in the Persian Gulf might have been earned when he returned fire after an insurgent group fired small arms at his patrol boat. A Navy sailor assigned as a corpsman could have earned his Combat Action Ribbon by returning fire, protecting his wounded as he tried to evacuate them. A Marine might earn his Combat Action Ribbon after his convoy was engaged by an IED and he counterattacked with his unit to suppress an ambush.

These are three very different missions, but they all wear the same Combat Action Ribbon. The ribbon represents how each of these individuals responded when it mattered most. The commonality is not a shared experience; it is a shared set of values that runs through each of these individuals and that is what is represented when they wear the Combat Action Ribbon.

Military Ribbon Chart
When I first enlisted after high school, I had no idea what all of the colored little ribbons meant that military personnel wore on their uniforms. I left basic training with one ribbon and then earned another when I finished tech school, but when I reported to my first duty station, I still had no idea what most of the colorful ribbons meant.

It was only seven years after the Vietnam War had ended and many of that war’s veterans were still in the ranks. Luckily for me, outside of his office, the first sergeant had a military ribbon chart that was poster-sized and every chance I could I studied it.

When I was on duty, I took mental snapshots of what I had seen and after duty hours I tried to remember what I had seen members of my unit wearing on their chests. I looked up the ribbons on the military ribbon chart on the wall. My regular reviews of the military ribbon chart taught me that in my unit were a lot of men who had served in the Vietnam War, some in other branches of the military like the Army and Marine Corps. By examining the ribbons on their chest and looking for the ribbons on the military ribbon chart, I learned that some had been wounded in combat and others had fought with valor during the war. The military ribbon chart taught me to read the ribbons on their chests, and it showed me the kinds of men I was standing to the left and right of.

Military Ribbon Order
At that time the hardest part for me wasn’t remembering and then recognizing the award, but rather, it was determining the military ribbon order. I did not know why some awards carried more weight than others. I did not understand why my supervisor wanted to award me with an Achievement Medal instead of a Commendation Medal. Frankly, I did not know which one was greater in the military ribbon order until I looked it up on the top’s poster. But there were plenty of things I still didn’t understand. For example, I did not understand why according to military ribbon order, the Professional Military Education (PME) ribbon had greater precedence than an Overseas Short Tour ribbon. From what everyone told me, NCO courses that enabled you to earn the PME ribbon were easy compared to doing a hard tour in Korea (at least in my job). Nonetheless, I studied the military ribbon order on the poster and it helped me as I moved forward in my career.

Military Ribbon Identifier
Today, handheld military ribbon identifiers and military ribbon identifier posters like the one hanging outside my first sergeant’s office are still around, but for the most part they are rare. You can find military ribbon identifiers online at USAMM. Their military ribbon identifier is easy to use. It has an entire web page of ribbons and a user can just click the ribbon and get a brief description of the award and they can determine if they want to add it to a rack or just purchase the lone ribbon. The descriptions help because the Air Force Overseas Long Tour ribbon is almost identical to the Air Force Overseas Short Tour ribbon. Sometimes when the colors and designs of the ribbons so closely resemble each other, it is hard to tell them apart.

Military Ribbon Colors
But usually military ribbons come in assorted colors. The Institute of Heraldry, a U.S. Army agency, is charged with designing the multicolored ribbons which adorn the uniforms of millions of service men and women around the world. Military ribbon colors vary and each ribbon’s colors are symbolic.

For example, the military ribbon colors of the Congressional Medal of Honor represent different things. According to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, the color white represents purity and innocence, and blue signifies vigilance, perseverance and justice. So, in addition to ribbons telling us something about the individuals who wear them, military ribbon colors also have a story to tell about what earning each ribbon means. The colors are symbolic.

Special Military Medals
My first sergeant when I was 19 saw me standing outside of his office once, studying the ribbon poster. It was something I did almost daily. He spoke to me from behind his desk: “There’s only a handful on that whole poster that you really need to know,” he shouted. He came out of his office and pointed to them. “These top ones right here.” Those were special military medals, he added.

He pointed to the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Navy Cross, Air Force Cross, and the Silver Star. I ignorantly asked him why he considered them special military medals. I honestly did not know. He explained that many of the other ribbons on the chart were campaign and service medals, meaning, that they were awarded for participating in a campaign. The National Defense Service Medal, he said, “I got that just for being in the military during Vietnam.” But the individual medals and decorations, those were for personal actions, for gallantry or meritorious service.

The top five decorations, those awards mattered the most and those were special military medals because of the courage and bravery needed to earn them. The Medal of Honor, for example, has been awarded only 3,508 times in its 159-year history. Today there are only 71 living recipients. According to the Department of Defense, the Medal of Honor is the highest military decoration awarded by the U.S. government. It is presented by the president, in the name of congress, and is conferred only upon members of the U.S. armed forces who distinguish themselves through conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in action against an enemy of the United States, while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force, or while serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party. There are three distinct versions for the U.S. Army, Air Force, and the Navy, to include the Marine Corps, and the Coast Guard.

The second highest special military medal is the Distinguished Service Cross which is awarded by the Army. While I was in Iraq, one of the officers in my unit earned the DSC after an hours-long firefight in Iraq along with his Iraqi counterparts. The DSC is awarded for extraordinary heroism while engaged in action against an enemy of the United States, while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force, or while serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party. Actions that merit the DSC must be of such a high degree that they are above those required for all other U.S. combat decorations but do not merit award of the Medal of Honor. The DSC is equivalent to the Navy Cross and the Air Force Cross. The Air Force and Navy Crosses have the same criteria for award as the DSC and they are special military medals for the same reasons.

The Silver Star is the third highest special military medal and it is awarded for gallantry in action against and enemy. The criteria for award requires the recipient had been engaged in action against an enemy of the United States, while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force, or while serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party. Actions that merit the Silver Star must be of such a high degree that they are above those required for all other U.S. combat decorations but do not merit award of the meet Medal of Honor or a service cross.

Yellow Ribbon Military
A different kind of military ribbon is the yellow ribbon. This kind of ribbon isn’t worn on the military uniform, but military families tend to wear them as pins to show their support for a loved one who is deployed or overseas. When I was deployed to Iraq, my wife wore a yellow ribbon pin and she also kept a yellow ribbon tied around a tree in our front yard.

The yellow ribbon military memory I have dates back to the Vietnam War. I remember as a kid there was a popular song that came out in the 1970s and was played on the radio all the time. Later, during Operation Desert Storm the yellow ribbon military support had a resurgence and everywhere it seemed that yellow ribbons were on display.

In post-911 America as forces deployed worldwide to participate in the Global War on Terror, yellow ribbon military support peaked with U.S. troop supporters wearing pins, shirts, displaying ribbons on their homes and affixing magnets and stickers to their cars.

When I reflect on my career, my first sergeant was right all those years ago. It was important for me to recognize those top decorations because as a young military member I needed to know my place in the military culture. If I saw anyone wearing any of those top awards, I should watch them, learn from them and strive to respond to situations the way they did if I were ever placed in similar scenarios.

During my 26 years I was privileged to have worked alongside of men who earned the DSC, Silver Star, and the Bronze Star for valor. I have also met Medal of Honor recipients, including the late John Levitow who was the first enlisted man I ever saluted. I say it was a privilege to know them not because of a little piece of ribbon on their chest, but because of how they lived. In all cases I did not know they had earned decorations for gallantry until I saw the ribbons on their chests. They were humble and they did not talk about their actions. 

Luckily, I listened to my first sergeant and learned about military ribbons and their meanings because had I not, I would not realize I was walking among heroes.

  • Author avatar
    Steven Alvarez