The Depot

Air Force Commendation Medal: How Is It Awarded?

Almost every branch of service has a commendation medal, the exceptions being the Marine Corps which presents the Navy Commendation Medal since the Marine Corps is a part of the Navy, and the U.S. Space Force which currently uses the Air Force Commendation Medal to recognize Guardians who go above and beyond.

The Air Force, established in 1947, did not have its own commendation medal for more than 10 years until it finally created the Air Force Commendation Medal in 1958.

BACKGROUND
The Air Force Commendation Medal was authorized by the Secretary of the Air Force on March 28, 1958, for award to members of the armed forces of the United States who, while serving in any capacity with the Air Force after March 24, 1958, shall have distinguished themselves by meritorious achievement and service. The degree of merit must be distinctive, though it need not be unique. Acts of courage which do not involve the voluntary risk of life required for the Airman's Medal may be considered for the Air Force Commendation Medal.

MEDAL DESCRIPTION
The Air Force Commendation Medal is a bronze hexagon, with one point up, centered upon which is the seal of the Air Force, an eagle with wings spread, facing left and perched upon a baton. There are clouds in the background. Below the seal is a shield bearing a pair of flyer's wings and a vertical baton with an eagle’s claw at either end; behind the shield are eight lightning bolts.

AUTHORIZED DEVICES
Oak Leaf Cluster, Combat “C”, Remote “R” and Valor “V” Devices are all authorized devices for the Air Force Commendation Medal.

ELIGIBILITY CRITERIA FOR COMBAT “C” DEVICE
The “C” device was established to distinguish an award (like the Air Force Commendation Medal) earned for exceptionally meritorious service or achievement performed under combat conditions on or after Jan. 7, 2016 (this is not retroactive prior to this date).

The device is only authorized if the service or achievement was performed while the service member was personally exposed to hostile action or under significant risk of hostile action:

  • While engaged in action against an enemy of the United States
  • While engaged in military ops 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

The use of the “C” device is determined solely on the specific circumstances under which the service or achievement was performed. The award is not determined by geographic location. The fact the service was performed in a combat zone, a combat zone tax exclusion area, or an area designated for imminent danger pay, hardship duty pay, or hostile fire pay is not sufficient to qualify for the “C” device. The service member must have been personally exposed to hostile action or under significant risk of hostile action.  

Rank/Grade will not be a factor in determining whether the “C” device is warranted, nor will any quotas, official or unofficial, be established limiting the number of “C” devices authorized for a given combat engagement, a given operation, or cumulatively within a given expanse of area or time. 

ELIGIBILITY CRITERIA FOR REMOTE “R” DEVICE
The “R” device was established to distinguish an award earned for direct hands-on employment of a weapon system that had a direct and immediate impact on a combat operation or other military operation, for example, the outcome of an engagement or specific effects on a target. Other military operations include Title 10, U.S. Code, support of non-Title 10 operations, and operations authorized by an approved execute order. 

The action must have been performed through any domain and in circumstances that did not expose the individual to personal hostile action, or place him or her at significant risk of personal exposure to hostile action:

  • While engaged in military operations against an enemy of the United States; or
  • While engaged in military ops involving conflict against an opposing foreign force; or
  • While serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in military operations with an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party
The “R” device may be awarded to Airmen who, during the period of the act, served in the remotely piloted aircraft; cyber; space; or Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance career fields on or after Jan. 7, 2016 (this is not retroactive prior to this date).

The "R" device is only authorized for a specific achievement (impact awards) and will not be authorized for sustained performance or service (end-of-tour, separation or retirement decorations)

The “R” device recognizes direct and immediate impact and shall be based on the merit of the individual's actions, the basic criteria of the decoration, and the “R” device criteria.

Performance of a normal duty or accumulation of minor acts will not justify the “R” device. The act must have been: performed in a manner significantly above that normally expected and sufficient to distinguish the individual above members performing similar acts.

A decoration should only be recommended in cases where the event clearly merits special recognition of the action (achieving a strategic objective or saving of lives on the ground).

ELIGIBILITY CRITERIA FOR VALOR “V” DEVICE
The “V” device is worn on decorations to denote valor, an act or acts of heroism by an individual above what is normally expected while engaged in direct combat with an enemy of the United States, or an opposing foreign or armed force, with exposure to enemy hostilities and personal risk.

Effective Jan. 7, 2016, the “V” device is authorized on the Air Force Commendation Medal. 

The Air Force Commendation Medal has a weighted airman promoted system point value of three.

 The Air Force Commendation Medal is ordinarily managed by the awards and decorations section of the human resources team. It can be submitted by any supervisor or nominator through personnel systems.

The Air Force Commendation Medal can be approved by a colonel (O-6) or higher and the Air Force Commendation Medal can be presented to members of a foreign military service. In all cases, it is never presented to anyone in the rank of colonel or higher.

The Evolution of the Thin Ribbon Rack

thin rack

The use of military ribbons on military uniforms in the form of a ribbon rack began in the U.S. military during the early 1900s when the services sought a more functional way to display military awards. At the time, military awards and decorations saw a significant increase in creation and establishment and a more inclusive awards criteria was ushered in.

According to the U.S. Navy, in 1905 the U.S. Army with the support of President Theodore Roosevelt, created awards for wear on the military uniform which commemorated service in military campaigns. Three years later in June 1908, the U.S. Navy issued Special Order No. 81 which authorized awards from the Civil War, the Spanish-American War and the Boxer Rebellion.

Ordinarily, decorations had been reserved for formal uniforms, but in the 1900s the U.S. military’s uniform practices shifted and military personnel started to use ribbons on their duty uniforms to reflect awards and decorations they had earned. There was a functional need to display awards and decorations on the work uniform as more and more military personnel participated in expeditionary-type missions.

The nation’s oldest awards like the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross,  Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart, all had ribbons designed for recipients to wear in lieu of the full medal. More than 90 years later, thin ribbons were authorized and introduced to the ranks as an alternative to the bulkier, traditional military ribbons. The thin ribbons developed a huge following in the military because they were lightweight and looked sharper than traditional ribbons.

The 20th Century brought an uptick in military campaigns. World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, to name a few, all have service medals authorized for wear on U.S. military uniforms which when added to personal decorations like the Bronze Star Medal or the Meritorious Service Medal, can create quite the “fruit salad” on an individual’s chest. Fruit salad, by the way, is the unofficial name of what many military personnel call their military ribbon racks because the racks resemble the multiple colors of a fruit salad.

As the services created more service medals and more and more personnel deployed, individual ribbon racks began to grow. These days it isn’t uncommon to hear military personnel ask “What ribbons do you get for deploying with the Army?” because they know upon return from their deployments, they will have to make adjustments to their ribbon racks.  

If a soldier deployed to Iraq in 2007, for example, they could earn the Iraqi Campaign Medal for service in Iraq as well as the National Defense Service Medal which is awarded if an individual served in the U.S. military during the Global War on Terror for the period from September 2001 to a time yet to be determined. An individual might also earn a decoration while deployed like the Army Achievement Medal or Army Commendation Medal. If the soldier is part of a mission like the NATO Training Mission in Iraq, that person might also qualify for the NATO Training Mission Iraq Medal.  

Members of other services also qualify for the previously mentioned service awards in addition to foreign entity awards like the NATO medal, and in addition, they will also qualify for awards like the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, Air Force Achievement Medal, and the Air Force Commendation Medal. When mobilized to serve for the U.S. Navy, Coastguardsmen can earn the Coast Guard Achievement Medal and Coast Guard Commendation Medal. Coast Guard personnel under operational Navy control as a result of presidential callup can also qualify for Navy awards and decorations.

Needless to say, with more than 100 ribbons that a U.S. military member can earn for achievement, service or gallantry, thin ribbons are an excellent way to neatly and professionally display earned awards and decorations on a U.S. military uniform. The flat, sharp-corned ribbon racks do not fray like most traditional ribbon racks and they can be affixed to a uniform in a variety of ways. If a military member is looking to make an impression, pinning on thin ribbons is like starching your ribbon rack. They are flat and look crisp.

But it should not be forgotten that the evolution of the traditional military ribbon rack into a thin ribbons rack likely developed in the same way that the military ribbon rack developed, out of necessity. Remember, in the early 1900s the U.S. military wanted to make it easier for their personnel to wear earned awards and decorations, so the ribbon rack was created. Today, in that spirit, the thin ribbon rack has evolved and will likely someday replace the traditional ribbon rack.

In the case of ribbons racks, bigger is not necessarily better and thin ribbons are definitely an investment every soldier, sailor, Marine, airman, guardian and Coastie should think about.

History of U.S. Military Medals

andre capture medal

In the U.S. military, the history of awards and decorations is, for the most part, not really something that is taught or handed down as a historical legacy. While military medals have an important role in the U.S. military, the history of how military medals became a part of the U.S. military culture is rarely discussed. That said, here’s what we’ve dug up.

A medal is normally metal that is struck with a design to commemorate an event. They are created using various methods, but these days most are done using pressured machines. In the past, bronze, silver and gold were used. Today, most military medals are made of metal alloys.

Antonio di Puccio Pisano, also known more commonly as Pisanello, is known widely as the inventor of the medal as we know it today. Pisano’s first medal, made in 1438, commemorated the visit to Italy of Byzantine emperor John VIII Palaeologus. Pisanello’s medals were small reliefs or portraits and according to historians, they were given out to nobility. Pisanello’s medal-making process stayed in Italy until around the 16th Century and then it spread to neighboring countries in Europe.

While it is subject to debate, the historian Titus Flavius Josephus wrote that Alexander the Great presented a button-like award to one of his military leaders which could mark the first military medal ever presented. And the Romans also used coin-like medallions to recognize military participation, effort and achievement and some of those medallions adorned Roman warriors as jewelry. Roman soldiers decorated themselves with medallions known as phalera. The phalerae that had been awarded to them represented the campaigns in which they had fought.

Similarly, according to an article published by the U.S. Navy, the Egyptians had the Order of the Golden Fly, a golden necklace decorated with flies to signify themselves as a pestilence to the enemy. During the Middle Ages, the jewelry presented for military achievement evolved into a pendant-like item, shaped like a disc. Known as a bracteate, this thin medal included loops that made them easy to wear. One of these, the Liuhard medalet, was struck in 6th Century CE.

In the 16th Century, medals were struck by rulers to commemorate specific events, including military battles and more specifically, military victories. The wider use of military medals was on the rise and the roots of our current military award system grew from this era. Specifically, combatants were presented with tokens from those who had sent them into harm’s way, but it should come as no surprise to anyone in the ranks that the bulk of the appreciation was poured on high-ranking military leaders.

Fast forward to the 13 colonies. Many in the U.S. military ranks incorrectly believe that the first U.S. military medal was the Badge of Military Merit which was created in 1782 and eventually became the Purple Heart. However, the oldest U.S. military medal is in fact the Fidelity Medallion which was created by the Continental Congress in 1780 and presented to those who captured British Army Major John André, the man who had worked with Benedict Arnold to betray the colonies. The Fidelity medal, also known as the André Capture Medal, was presented to three soldiers who were members of the New York militia. Privates Isaac Van Wart, David Williams and John Paulding all received the award. The Fidelity Medallion was never again awarded and for this reason the Badge of Military Merit is considered the first military medal of the U.S. military.

It is worth noting though that the Continental Congress had voted to present General George Washington, General Horatio Gates and Captain John Paul Jones with gold medallions for their national contributions in defeat of the British, however, the recognition would not be bestowed until 1790 after Washington was president. So the first-ever U.S. military medals were presented to Army privates and not high-ranking officers.

And while those who have served understand the difference, it is important to note that many in the civilian sector make no differentiation between awards and decorations. Yet they are two vastly different things. A decoration is usually earned for specific acts of bravery or achievement. An award or service medal is usually presented for service in a particular role or for service in a particular geographical area during a specific period of time.

For example, a military member who served as part of the COVID-19 response is eligible to wear the Armed Forces Service Medal or the Humanitarian Service Medal see (Depot Blog article). A soldier who deployed to Iraq is authorized to wear the Iraqi Campaign Medal and a soldier who has deployed to Afghanistan is authorized to wear the Afghanistan Campaign Medal, much like the Vietnam Service Medal is awarded for service in the geographical theater areas of Vietnam. These awards are earned by participation in a specific operation, like the Southwest Asia Service Medal for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

One of the lesser known and early “service medals” is the Légion d’honneu which was created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 to recognize meritorious service. The award has since evolved into being one of France’s highest honors, but when Bonaparte created it, the award was inclusive and awarded to all ranks. Bonaparte recognized that these awards had a positive impact on the morale of his soldiers. They were, however, normally restricted for wear in formal uniforms. Bonaparte’s soldiers, in keeping with practices established by the Crusaders hundreds of years earlier, wore their awards over their left breast near the heart. The left side is also the shield side where swords were normally worn to be drawn with the right hand, shields protected not only the heart, but the awards.

Decorations are presented to the individual for gallantry, meritorious service or achievement. For example, a private can earn an Army Achievement Medal for being an exceptional soldier. A sailor can develop a new maintenance widget on a ship that saves the Navy millions of dollars per year and earn a Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal. A Marine can fight like a lion in a firefight while deployed and earn a Silver Star for gallantry. The point is, there are some awards that are given to everyone for being a part of an event (commemorating an event) and there are some medals presented to the individual for a job well done.

The one thing we know for sure is the military medals system of the U.S. military is imperfect. It is a system where some argue that awards like the Bronze Star Medal, Air Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, Legion of Merit and other military medals are given out too liberally to those who are closer to the flag pole and those who are out executing the mission and putting themselves at greater risk earn military medals of lesser impact. Opinions vary on the efficacy of the U.S. military medals system, but one thing is definite.

It was George Washington’s establishment of the Badge of Military Merit in 1782 that truly ushered in the use of U.S. military medals and created a military medals system for gallantry, fidelity and service. In 1932, Army Chief of Staff, General Douglas MacArthur revived the dormant Badge of Military Merit and the Purple Heart was established by order of the president with Washington’s likeness in the center of the medal and the words “For Military Merit” stamped on the reverse side of the medal, a tip of the hat to the award’s original roots.