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.

U.S. Army Medals History

The first medal ever created for the U.S. military was the Badge for Military Merit in 1782. It was created by Gen. George Washington and it was awarded for “any singularly meritorious action.” It was the first award in U.S. Army medals history.

The Badge of Military Merit was awarded to three soldiers during the Revolutionary War: Daniel Bissell, Jr., Elijah Churchill, and William Brown. After the Revolutionary War the decoration was largely forgotten.

In 1927, Gen. Charles P. Summerall, then the U.S. Army chief of staff, tried to revive the Badge of Military Merit, but he was unsuccessful. However, in 1931, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, reinvigorated the issue and on Feb. 22, 1932, Washington’s 200th birthday, the U.S. War Department announced the creation of the “Order of the Purple Heart.”

The new Purple Heart displayed a bust of Washington and it is considered the oldest American military decoration for military merit. It is awarded to members of the U.S. armed forces who have been killed or wounded in action against an enemy.

There are numerous awards and decorations that can be presented to members of the U.S. Army. While it is rare, members of sister services can recognize soldiers and present awards from other branches of service. It is not uncommon, especially for soldiers who work closely with other services, for an Army soldier to receive an award from the Air Force, Navy or another branch of service or to receive a joint award, like the Joint Service Commendation Medal.

In addition to that, allied nations may present foreign awards and decorations to U.S. Army personnel who served with them. This is also a part of U.S. Army medals history. During Operation Desert Storm, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait both issued their country’s version of the Kuwait Liberation Medal to U.S. military personnel who defended those nations against Iraq. Similarly, the Republics of Vietnam and South Korea also presented service awards (Vietnam Campaign Medal and Republic of Korea War Service Medal) to U.S military personnel. In addition, alliances, like NATO and the United Nations, also have awards for those who have served on their missions, like the NATO Medal and the UN Medal, both which can also be included in the U.S. Army medals history.

While the majority of U.S. Army personnel will earn awards like the Army Commendation and Army Achievement Medal, or the Meritorious Service Medal, the most revered decorations are the top three decorations for gallantry because they can only be earned on the battlefield. These medals are presented for valor against an enemy and they are legendary in U.S. Army medals history.

The nation’s top award for valor is the Medal of Honor and it is about 50 percent larger than the other medals. It was created in 1861. The first action to merit the award took place in in February 1861 during the Apache Wars when Assistant Army surgeon Bernard John Dowling Irwin rescued 60 soldiers and in May of that year, in Alexandria, Virginia, Army Pvt. Frances Edwin Brownell, performed the first action of the Civil War to merit the Medal of Honor, when he killed an innkeeper who had shot his commanding officer.

It's important to note that the Medal of Honor was not approved by the U.S. Congress and President Abraham Lincoln until December 1861. Initially it was approved as a Navy award, but seven months later it was opened to the U.S. Army and became part of the U.S. Army medals history.

In April 1862, union raiders commandeered a locomotive in Georgia and drove it north toward Tennessee cutting telegraph lines and damaging the rail line. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton awarded some of the raiders the Medal of Honor which is why Pvt. Jacob Wilson Parrott is sometimes considered the first to receive the decoration.

Since then, more than 3,500 Medals of Honor have been awarded. It is often referred to as the Congressional Medal of Honor because it is the only decoration approved by the U.S. Congress. It is presented by the President of the United States, in the name of Congress, to U.S. military members 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 and enemy of the United States.

The Army Medal of Honor’s ribbon is light blue with 13 embroidered stars for the 13 original states. The reverse of the medal is blank, but the words, “The Congress To,” appear on the back of the “Valor” bar, and the recipient's name is filled in below. The bail has an eagle, a symbol of the United States, clutching shafts of arrows and while perched on a bar bearing the word “Valor.” Green laurel surrounds the oak clusters, representing strength, are in the points of the star. The laurel clusters, for victory, form an open wreath. The words “United States of America” surround a profile of the helmeted Goddess of War with an owl on her helmet representing wisdom. There are three versions of the Medal of Honor (one for the Army, one for the Air Force, and one for the Navy, the Marine Corps, and the Coast Guard). The Medal of Honor is the only Civil War era medal to be presented in the modern age.

The Distinguished Service Cross is the Army’s second highest military decoration that can be awarded to a member of the U.S. Army. It 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, according to U.S. Army medals history.

The award, created in 1918, is not easy to earn. Actions that merit the Distinguished Service Cross 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 Distinguished Service Cross is equivalent to the Navy Cross (Navy and Marine Corps, and Coast Guard when operating under the authority of the Department of the Navy) and the Air Force Cross.

The Silver Star, also created in 1918, is the third-highest military combat decoration that can be awarded to a member of the U.S. Army. It is awarded for gallantry in action: 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 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 Medal of Honor or the Distinguished Service Cross.