The Depot

When Should I Wear My Army Ribbons and Medals?

How to wear military medals and ribbons while in uniform is ordinarily covered by the regulations of each branch of service. For example, an Army soldier can get answers about how to wear military medals and ribbons by reviewing Army Regulation 670-1.

Uniform service regulations stipulate in great detail how to wear military medals and ribbons. A quick online search will turn up a uniform regulation, but when in doubt, turn to the experts and ask a non-commissioned officer in the chain of command if you can’t find it.

But if you still have questions about how to wear military medals and ribbons, here are a few general tips. We strongly encourage you to review service specific regulations on how to wear military medals and ribbons.

  • Formal evening attire such as tuxedos and formal evening jackets, require the use of miniature medals and badges. Ribbons are not worn on this uniform.
  • The use of large medals and badges is reserved for daytime attire, but ensure not to wear large medals and ribbons at the same time. The exception is the wear of unit ribbons on the right side on the Army uniform.
  • When wearing civilian attire, ensure you comply with the same rules as if you were in uniform. Mini medals go on a civilian tuxedo (formal wear) and do not wear medals or badges on casual clothing, like a polo shirt.
  • Follow the order of precedence when wearing your awards.
  • Many retirees choose to wear just their highest award’s lapel pin when in business attire. Some also wear small badges. There are no real regulations governing these acts, just exercise common sense and do not bring discredit to you or your hard-earned awards. Remember, lapel pins are worn on the left lapel (just like medals on a tuxedo). And it is generally accepted that you can wear one, but not several.

When in doubt, check your specific branch’s regulations for guidance on how to wear military medals and ribbons.

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.

How To Display Military Medals in a Shadow Box

Serving in the U.S. military is not about the individual. Our men and women in uniform perform their duty for many reasons. Some are patriotic and serve because of love of country. Others feel that their duty is to care for the person standing to the left and right of them in the ranks. And some feel an obligation, a debt, to give back to the country. Whatever the reason for their service, one thing is certain, those who serve do so unselfishly, putting the needs of the nation, the service branch and their units before their own.

Once a military member hangs up his or her boots, many veterans capture and preserve their military service by creating a shadow box or having one ordered. Shadow boxes capture a unique period in a person’s life and unlike the selfless military duty that the contents represent, shadow boxes should be customized and personal, regardless of whether you put them together yourself, or allow a professional to assemble it for you.

There is no incorrect way to display your service pride in a shadow box. What goes into a shadow box is completely up to the individual whose service is reflected in the box. While military medals are for most veterans the primary items that are encased in a shadow box, it isn't uncommon to see ka-bars displayed alongside of military medals in shadow boxes, dog leashes and collars sharing a shadow box with military medals and even an old c-rations can that had a piece of shrapnel in it, proudly displayed alongside of military medals, patches, pins and stripes. Each shadow box is unique to the individual it represents because each person’s military experience is so unique to them.

For many, shadow boxes include a veteran’s rank, earned badges, professional designations and qualifications, and of course military medals, awards and decorations. Some believe that because the military is a place of order and discipline, that a shadow box has to be structured accordingly. Not true. If an individual wants his shadow box to only include his Purple Heart, dog tags and his Zippo lighter, then his or her shadow box should only include those items. If the veteran does not want the rest of their military medals included in the box, they’ve earned the right to determine what is best reflective of their military service.

However, if a veteran decides to display medals and ribbon racks, then it is advisable to place the medals and ribbons in order of precedence according to the veteran’s military branch. This not only shows respect for the services and the awards and decorations, but also to the millions of individuals who might have earned the military medals.

Ranks, if included in the shadow box, should probably go in order of precedence as well just to make it easier to explain to individuals who are unfamiliar with military service.

The bottom line is that there is no limit to what can be included in a shadow box. Flags and photographs can also be included along with other mementos from a veteran’s military service, as well as military medals. What goes into a military shadow box and how it is arranged is completely up to the veteran.