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Military Service Medals: How To Tell Where A Veteran Has Served

There are hundreds of awards and decorations that U.S. military service members can wear on their uniform. Some of these ribbons, medals and badges are earned by attending and successfully completing a military training school, while others are earned for personal achievement or bravery.

Military service medals, however, are medals that can be earned by participating in a campaign or serving in a particular theater. Military service medals were created to recognize the military service of U.S. military members during American military campaigns and key moments in American history.

These military service medals also tell those who recognize them on a veteran’s uniform where a veteran has served and the history they may have witnessed and lived.

History of Military Service Medals
The first U.S. military service medal was the Army Civil War Campaign Medal which was authorized in 1905 and established two years later. The blue and gray ribbon pays homage to the uniform colors of the U.S. and Confederate troops. There was an Army and a Navy version. Those who served in the Army between April 15, 1861 and August 20, 1866 were eligible. Those who served between April 15, 1861 and April 9, 1865 were eligible for the Navy medal.

At the same time the Civil War Campaign Medal was created, so was the Indian Campaign Medal. Soldiers participating in one of the 14 campaigns against Native American tribes were eligible to wear this award that recognized service dating back to 1790. The last campaign recognized with this award was Wounded Knee in 1891.

Two years after the creation of the military service medals recognizing the Civil War and the Indian Wars, the Spanish Campaign Medal was introduced to recognize U.S. military personnel who served in the Spanish American War. There was an Army and Navy version of the award.

To be eligible, service personnel must have served in Cuba, the Philippines, or Puerto Rico between May 11, 1898 to August 16, 1898. For those who were in the military during this time, but did not serve directly in those geographical areas, the Spanish War Service Medal was created. The Navy also created several military service medals during this time to recognize service in different parts of the globe.

Also related to the Spanish American War were two U.S. government military service medals that recognized service in Cuba, the Army of Cuban Occupation Medal and the Army of Cuban Pacification Medal. There are also military service medals presented for campaigns in the Philippines, Puerto Rico, China, the Mexican border and World War I.

Military Service Medals 1940s to 1950s
World War II saw a plethora of awards created, and justifiably so, to recognize the war service of the Greatest Generation. World War II military service medals include the World War II Victory Medal, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal, and the European-African-Middle Eastern-Campaign Medal. The World War II military service medals specified those who served in particular geographical regions were eligible for the military service awards if they served during a particular time frame.

During the Korean War, the U.S. government issued several military service medals. The Korean Service Medal was created to recognize members of the U.S. armed forces who served in the Korean War between June 27, 1950 - July 27, 1954. This is not to be confused with the Republic of Korea War Service Medal which was presented by the South Korean government to U.S. military members.

The National Defense Service Medal (NDSM) was also presented to those who served during the Korean War, but the award is extended to those who did not actually serve in Korea, but served during the Korean War.

The NDSM is presented to recognize all military members who have served in active duty during a declared “national emergency.” To be eligible, members must have served honorably during the Korean War, Vietnam War, Gulf War, and the War on Terrorism.

Military Service Medals Vietnam Era
The most widely recognized military service medal from the Vietnam era is the Vietnam Service Medal (VSM). The VSM is presented to personnel of any branch of the U.S. military who performed military service in the Vietnam War. The VSM replaced the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal which was awarded for service in Vietnam from 1961 to 1965.

The Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal was created in 1961 and it is earned by U.S. military personnel for their involvement in “any military campaign of the United States for which no other service medal is authorized.” This includes the Cuban Missile Crisis, actions in Lebanon, Taiwan, the Congo, Quemoy and Matsu, and for participation in Berlin between 1961 and 1963, initial operations in South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, Panama, Grenada, Libya, Operation Earnest Will, peacekeeping and sanction missions against Iraq, Operation Northern Watch, Operation Southern Watch, Operation Vigilant Sentinel, and United Nations action, including Bosnia and Somalia.

The Antarctica Service Medal is earned by a select few. It is presented to U.S. military members who serve between 15 and 30 days while stationed on the Antarctic continent. Flight crews may be eligible. The award was established on July 7, 1960 and it replaced several commemorative awards that were issued for Antarctica expeditions from 1928 to 1941.

Cold War Era Military Service Medals
The Humanitarian Service Medal was created in 1977 and it is an award presented to any member of the U.S. military who has demonstrated commendable conduct in humanitarian military acts or operations. Military acts that the U.S. Department of Defense has authorized for this medal include natural disaster relief, humanitarian support of refugees or evacuation of non-combatants from a hostile area.

The Korea Defense Service Medal was created to recognize a new generation of American service personnel who served in South Korea post Korean War.

1990s Military Service Medals
In 1996, the Armed Forces Service Medal (AFSM) was created and is presented to personnel who partake in “significant activity” for which no other service or campaign medal is accredited. The award has been presented for participation in operations in Yugoslavia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia, Hungary, and Italy. The AFSM was also given for service in Hurricanes Katrina and Rita relief efforts.

The Kosovo Campaign Medal is a military service medal presented to individuals who served in Kosovo from 1999 to a date yet to be determined. Members must have served in support of Operation Allied Force, Operation Allied Harbor, Operation Shining Hope, Operation Noble Anvil, Operation Joint Guardian, Task Force Hawk, Task Force Saber, Task Force Falcon or Task Force Hunter.

The Southwest Asia Service Medal was the primary military service medal awarded to U.S. military personnel who served during the Persian Gulf War (Desert Storm/Desert Shield). The award is presented to recognize military members who served within designated geographical regions during the Persian Gulf War. The Kuwait Liberation of Kuwait Service Medal and the Saudi Arabian Medal for the Liberation of Kuwait were also awarded to U.S. military personnel who qualified. They were presented by the governments of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.


Post 9/11 Military Service Medals
American service personnel who served in the U.S. military in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks are eligible for many U.S. military service medals, including many which have been previously mentioned in this post; others are for service in overseas locations.

For example, the Afghanistan Campaign Medal  (ACM) is a military service medal awarded to U.S. military personnel for serving within the borders of Afghanistan. This award is retroactive to October 24, 2001.

The ACM replaces the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal (GWOTEM) for personnel who served in Afghanistan. If personnel have previously received the GWOTEM, they may choose whether or not they want to exchange their medal for the ACM. These two medals cannot be awarded for the same period of service in Afghanistan.

The GWOTEM is a military service medal that was established in 2003 to recognize service members of the U.S. military who deployed abroad for service in the war on terrorism on or after 9/11 to a date to be determined. The GWOTEM is only awarded once per named operation, regardless of the number of deployments and periods of service supporting that operation.

The Global War on Terrorism Service Medal is a military service medal created in 2003 that is presented to U.S. military members who have served in the war on terror from September 11, 2001 to a yet to be determined date. To be eligible, service members must have served within an authorized anti-terrorism campaign to include airport security operations, Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Noble Eagle and Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Global War on Terrorism Service Medal is generally awarded for service within the United States.

The Iraq Campaign Medal is an award presented by the United States to personnel who served within Iraq or surrounding waters between March 19, 2003 to a date yet to be determined. This medal replaces GWOTEM awarded prior to June 2005 for service in Iraq. Recipients of the GWOTEM may choose to exchange their GWOTEM for the Iraqi Campaign Medal.

The Inherent Resolve Campaign Medal provides recognition to those service members who have served in Iraq, Syria, or contiguous waters or airspace on or after June 15, 2014 to a date to be determined.

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