The Depot

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.

The Army Commendation Medal

According to Army Regulation 600-8-22, the Army Commendation Medal was established by the Secretary of War on December 18, 1945, and amended in Department of the Army General Orders 10, 1960. The Army Commendation Medal is awarded to any servicemember of the armed forces of the United States who, while serving in any capacity with the U.S. Army after 6 December 1941, distinguishes himself or herself by heroism, meritorious achievement, or meritorious service.

Award of the Army Commendation Medal may be made to a member of the armed forces of a friendly foreign nation who, after June 1, 1962, distinguishes himself or herself by an act of heroism, extraordinary achievement, or meritorious service, which has been of mutual benefit to a friendly nation and the United States.

The Army Commendation Medal may be awarded for combat related service or achievement after February 19, 1964. Awards of the Army Commendation Medal may be made for acts of valor performed under circumstances described above which are of lesser degree than required for award of the Bronze Star Medal. These acts may involve aerial flight.

The Army Commendation Medal may be awarded for acts of noncombatant-related heroism which do not meet the requirements for an award of the Soldier’s Medal or for acts of aerial flight which do not meet the requirements for award of the Air Medal.

The Army Commendation Medal cannot be awarded to general officers. Award of the Army Commendation Medal may be made to any individual commended after December 6, 1941 and before January 1, 1946 in a letter, certificate, or order of commendation, as distinguished from letter of appreciation, signed by an officer in the rank or position of major general or higher. Veterans and retirees may submit letter applications to National Personnel Records Center (NPRC), 1 Archives Drive, St. Louis, MO 63138–1002.

Soldiers who retired or were discharged after Oct. 1, 2002 should send their letter application to: Commander, U.S. Army Human Resources Command, Awards and Decorations Branch (AHRC–PDP–A), 1600 Spearhead Division Avenue, Fort Knox, KY 40122–5408. Awards of the Army Commendation Ribbon and of the Commendation Ribbon with Metal Pendant were redesignated by DAGO 1960–10, as awards of the Army Commendation Medal, without amendment of orders previously issued.

An award of the Army Commendation Medal for meritorious service will not normally be made for a period of service of less than 6 months’ duration.

The Army Commendation Medal is a 1 3/8-inch bronze hexagon, with one point up, an American bald eagle with wings displayed horizontally grasping three crossed arrows and bearing on its breast a shield. On the reverse between the words “For Military” and “Merit” there is a panel for the recipient’s name, all above a sprig of laurel. A silk ribbon of green and white stripes comprises the ribbon.

The Army Commendation Medal can have oak leaf clusters, the combat “C” device, the remote “R” device and the “V” device for valor.