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.