Military medals: What do they represent?

Ask any military veteran how they feel about military medals and you will get a different answer every time. For some, their military medals were earned silently underneath the surface of the oceans of the world on patrol with the U.S. Navy. Others earned theirs flying above a disaster zone in an Army National Guard helicopter, delivering much-needed food and water to victims of the natural world’s wrath. And in a jungle in Central America, U.S. Air Force engineers earned their military medals constructing a base where before there was only a swamp as U.S. Marine Corps mechanics thousands of miles away earned theirs keeping a fleet moving during offensive operations overseas.

Most military personnel have earned a military medal for doing something beyond what is expected. At their core, military medals represent going above and beyond, exceeding expectations, but sometimes a military medal is awarded solely for participation in a campaign or operation. But make no mistake, military medals like the National Defense Service Medal, the Iraq Campaign Medal (ICM), Korea Defense Service Medal (KDSM), for example, are not like a child’s participation trophy where everyone on the team gets one. These medals represent a willingness to do something when others would not. It might mean a willingness to raise a right hand, take an oath and serve like millions did after 9-11, or it might reflect dedication to serve in a faraway place like Afghanistan. These military medals represent the unspoken sacrifices that our men and women in uniform make for our country. The awards tell everyone that those who wear it on their uniforms bore witness to history.

The ICM, for example, is for service in Iraq from 2004 to 2011. This military medal for some represents months and years of separation from loved ones in often dangerous conditions. It can, for many veterans, represent the conditions they endured during their deployment, or the victories and losses. While not a personal decoration, military medals like the ICM can be held in high regard or be a source of pride because of what they represent. For those who wear it the military medal is more than just about serving in Iraq. It is about being a part of making history in Iraq.

Although the U.S. military mostly now watches over the peace in South Korea, the KDSM also represents sacrifices endured by U.S. military members and their families, but the military medal also shows a serious commitment by those who served there and kept the tip of the spear sharp through rigorous training and professional execution of their assigned missions to deter North Korea from ever attacking again.

Most military veterans downplay the significance of military medals that are awarded for service simply because all they have to do is show up in a particular area of the world, during a specific period of time in our American history. Those military medals are important because they reflect the level of experience a person might bring to the table. A food services soldier might have experience making meals for a battalion in field conditions, but that same soldier might bring a different skill set to an organization if he or she has fed troops under fire. They might have extraordinary improvisational skills because of challenges they faced downrange. Those military medals reflect anecdotes that are a part of a veteran’s history.  

Like millions of other U.S. military personnel, I was decorated with military medals for my service in Iraq. My decorations were earned trying to tell the story of the U.S. military and its coalition partners in Iraq. Many of my counterparts were decorated with their military medals for different reasons like protecting our base, guarding convoys, keeping a steady stream of supplies flowing, processing personnel actions, training Iraqi forces, setting up communication networks, you name it. All of us had different roles, all of us contributed in different ways to the overall mission and the military medals we earned shows that we are all valuable. 

Military medals that are presented for personal achievement or bravery are considered decorations. Usually these are the military medals that veterans hold in highest regard because they represent the individual contribution of a uniformed military member to a mission or campaign. 

Depending on the military medal that is presented, a decoration can reflect the depth, breadth and bravery of an individual’s contribution during a given operation. In some extreme cases the military medals represent the ultimate sacrifice made by many of our men and women in uniform.

We had several soldiers at Multinational Security Transition Command Iraq make the ultimate sacrifice during my tour and posthumous military medals were presented during memorial ceremonies. Along those lines, several personnel earned Purple Hearts in our unit, but the two I recall were Air Force computer technicians who sustained wounds when their vehicle was attacked by terrorists using an IED. They were traveling to install a communications network. Our general pinned their awards to their pajama tops in the hospital. Enemy violence does not discriminate.

The military medals system is subjective and far from perfect. Spend enough time in uniform and you will hear stories of people rising up to challenges, performing Herculean feats and committing actions under fire that are nothing short of heroic. Our military personnel earn their military medals by serving during periods of crises, in conflicts and by distinguishing themselves.

To me, the question should not be “What do military medals represent?” Better said it should be “Who do military medals represent?”

For those that serve, military medals remind us of those who we have served, and those who have stood alongside of us in formation. For a military veteran, a Humanitarian Service Medal might stir memories of a smiling Haitian child given his first meal several days after a hurricane destroyed his nation. A Military Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal might trigger thoughts of the kids at a Korean orphanage where an NCO volunteered as an English instructor. A Meritorious Service Medal might be looked upon by the recipient in fondness when she remembers the troops she commanded. A posthumous Medal of Honor might cause a former teammate to reflect on the sacrifices the awardee made for others.

Military medals represent the many faces of those military veterans have served; they represent those to our left and right, who stand with us shoulder to shoulder and military medals represent those who are no longer with us.

They are for veterans, precious metals.

Thin Ribbons Make Big Impressions

Ultrathin Ribbons
The first time I saw ultrathin ribbons I was sitting across from a sergeant in my unit and he was telling me about what I needed in order to get promoted. He looked impressive as if someone had picked him up by his ankles, dipped him in starch and ironed him. Even his ultrathin ribbons seemed starched. He was crisp.

I asked him about his ultrathin ribbons and how he had ironed them. He laughed and told me that ultrathin ribbons were something that a soldier could buy, not make. He told me he had special ordered his ultrathin ribbons and that he liked how much lighter they were compared to regular ribbons.

Military Thin Ribbons
In his desk drawer he happened to have his old rack of military thin ribbons and he took them out for me to look at them. He had just a couple of more ribbons on his rack than I did and I could not believe how much lighter his military thin ribbon rack was compared to mine. And the military thin ribbons looked as if they had just been removed from a steam press. The looked extraordinary compared to my traditional rack which had fraying ribbons and brass showing in between each awkwardly placed ribbons.

He explained that the military thin ribbons were worth the money when I asked about their costs. The sergeant said they were inexpensive and would more than pay for themselves if I got promoted due to my uniform appearance.

Thin Ribbon Rack
He continued his sales pitch about the thin ribbon racks, but I was sold when I first saw them. Thin ribbon racks were not only lighter and easier to put on a uniform, they were also not as bulky. Thin ribbon racks did not get snagged on things as often as traditional ribbon racks and ordering them was simple.

Personalized Ribbon/Custom Ribbon/National Defense Ribbon
The sergeant also mentioned that each custom ribbon rack was a personalized ribbon rack. I later learned they were designed by experienced professionals for each individual. Custom ribbon racks could be modified easily, if let’s say an individual added an additional award of the National Defense ribbon to his personalized ribbon rack, a soldier could easily just remove the bronze star device and add another to the custom ribbon. It would still be a personalized ribbon rack if it just needed adjustments to the devices on the ribbons. There would not be a need to order a new rack solely because the National Defense ribbon needed another device, whereas a National Defense ribbon on a traditional ribbon rack might require a new ribbon if a soldier uses the traditional ribbon device that punctures the ribbon. 

Super Thin Ribbons 
Eventually I listened to my sergeant friend and I purchased my super thin ribbons for my Class A uniform. He was right, I got promoted and the small fee I paid for the super thin ribbons was more than covered by the extra money I was making monthly because of the promotion. I used super thin ribbons until the day I retired and those super thin ribbons are now hanging in my shadow box looking as sharp as ever.

Rack ‘em up: A Ribbon Rack Builder Makes Uniform Rack Building Easy

Army Ribbon Rack Builder
I spent about a decade as an enlisted guy in the U.S. Air Force and Air Force Reserve before making the leap to the U.S. Army as a commissioned officer. As a new Army officer, I had to determine what Air Force awards I could wear on my Army uniform. I did it the old school way, by reading regulations, looking at charts and tables and painstakingly piecing my ribbon rack together. Back in the day, there was no military ribbon rack builder. There were no technological aids.

Then before I retired, I had one more promotion board to which I was required to submit a packet. A first sergeant walked by my office and saw me trying to piece together my ribbon rack and she recommended that I check out the Army ribbon rack builder. She directed me to the website and all I had to do was find my ribbons and medals, select them, and the Army ribbon rack builder built a virtual ribbon rack and placed them in order of precedence according to Army regulations. All I had to do was click my mouse. There was no need to look up regulations, examine pictures, or explore Army ribbon charts. I also didn’t have to go to the store and spend all kinds of time sorting through individual ribbons. I just found the authorized award on the web page, clicked it and added it to my awards batch, and the Army ribbon rack builder took care of the rest by placing them in order of precedence and attaching devices where required. I was able to easily include medals I earned in the Global War on Terror by using the Army ribbon rack builder. If you’re a member of the U.S. Army, Army Reserve or Army National Guard, the Army ribbon rack builder can help you build a regulation Army ribbon rack with ease.

Navy Ribbon Rack Builder
And if there is an Army ribbon rack builder, rest assured there is also a Navy ribbon rack builder. The Navy ribbon rack builder works on the same platform as the Army ribbon rack builder, only, you guessed it, the Navy ribbon rack builder is designed to help U.S. Navy, Naval Reserve, U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Marine Corps Forces Reserve personnel build a rack. If you are a member of the naval services and you have served in the U.S. Army, Air Force or Coast Guard, you can select in the Navy ribbon rack builder authorized awards to include in your ribbon rack. The Navy ribbon rack builder also includes Department of Defense awards created for U.S. military personnel who have served in various roles and campaigns in the Global War on Terror.

Air Force Ribbon Rack Builder
Similarly, the Air Force ribbon rack builder can help members of the U.S. Air Force, Air Force Reserve and the Air National Guard organize a virtual ribbon rack online. Military members who served in the Army, Navy or Marine Corps can include authorized awards from these branches of service when they use the Air Force Ribbon Rack Builder. The Air Force ribbon rack builder uses the same technological platform as its sister service rack builders and helps airmen create a regulation-compliant ribbon rack. The Air Force ribbon rack builder also includes recently added Air Force ribbons that have been added to the U.S. Air Force’s award inventory since the start of operations in the Global War on Terror.

CAP Ribbon Rack Builder 
The U.S. Air Force has stated that in addition to the Air Reserve and Air National Guard, that the Civil Air Patrol or CAP is a member of its total force package. That said, CAP members can use the CAP ribbon rack builder to build their ribbon rack. As the official auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force founded in 1941, CAP has a large inventory of ribbons and awards that are worn by its nearly 70,000 senior members and cadets.

CAP authorizes its members to wear certain U.S. military awards on their CAP uniforms, and the CAP ribbon rack builder can help you determine what branch specific awards are authorized for wear on your CAP uniforms. The CAP ribbon rack builder takes the mystery out of assembling a CAP ribbon rack. And like the other ribbon rack builders, the CAP ribbon rack builder allows you to choose, large or small racks, and regular or thin ribbons.

Military Ribbon Rack Builder
The military ribbon rack builder, as you can see, can be customized for any branch of service to build a customized military ribbon rack. By using the military ribbon rack builder, service members can get their uniforms ready for inspections, schools and significant events like balls, weddings and ceremonies. The military ribbon rack builder can also be used by veterans who have decided to make their military ribbons a keepsake of their military service. For those who are unfamiliar with military service and are trying to assemble a veteran’s military awards, the ease of use of the military ribbon rack builder can help navigate the awards and decorations landscape of the U.S. military with award selections from all branches of service, including the U.S. Space Force which was formed in December 2019 and falls under the purview of the Department of the Air Force.

Large Ribbon Rack Builder/Small Ribbon Rack Builder
Regardless of what branch of service you choose, the large ribbon rack builder is likely going to be your solution for most of your uniform needs. The large ribbon rack builder helps you construct your regulation-sized military ribbon racks for use on your uniforms. But if you’re looking for a way to show your military pride, say on a helmet flight bag, a small ruck sack or on a mission bag, the small ribbon rack builder is the way to go and is a nice complement to morale patches. Using the small ribbon rack builder will enable you to build a tiny military ribbon rack that you can attach to just about anything. They make great conversation starters and to fellow veterans who see them they say that you’ve been there, done that.

The best part about using the large ribbon rack builder and the small ribbon rack builder is that you can create them and attach them using magnets, traditional pins, or even make them stickers. You can build them using traditional ribbons or thin ribbons. The choice is yours, but using the large ribbon rack builder or the small ribbon rack builder puts you in control with just a click of the mouse.

Military Ribbons: More Than A Résumé on a Chest

Military Ribbon Rack
They resemble tiny bricks and they are all colored and patterned differently. Some are adorned with tiny brass items; letters, numerals, leaves and stars, and some are framed, but we know because they are placed so prominently on a military person’s uniform that they are important to the people who wear them. Usually those who are junior in rank have less on their military ribbon racks, if they have one at all. But the older, more seasoned veterans, have multiple rows of the colored ribbons climbing upward from their chest to their shoulders, as many lines of ribbons on their chests, they have on their faces. Although lightweight while on the uniform, some of those military ribbon racks have proven to be hard-earned, heavy in the weight that was carried in the form of stress, danger, physical work and in some cases memories that cannot be unseen.

A military ribbon rack is a résumé that tells those who know how to read them, where a person has been, what they have experienced, what they know and what they are capable of. But more importantly it tells us about their character and how they live their lives. Simply put, military ribbon racks do not just tell us what medals and decorations a person has earned. Instead, they tell us who the person is. And like each individual who wears them, military ribbon racks are unique. Despite the fact that thousands of individuals might be wearing the same ribbon, each of them earned it their own way.

Combat Action Ribbon
Take, for example, the Combat Action Ribbon. According to the U.S. Marine Corps, this ribbon is awarded to members of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Coast Guard (when the Coast Guard or units thereof operate under the control of the Navy) in the grade of captain/colonel and below, who have actively participated in ground or surface combat.

The Combat Action Ribbon earned by a Coast Guardsman protecting oil platforms in the Persian Gulf might have been earned when he returned fire after an insurgent group fired small arms at his patrol boat. A Navy sailor assigned as a corpsman could have earned his Combat Action Ribbon by returning fire, protecting his wounded as he tried to evacuate them. A Marine might earn his Combat Action Ribbon after his convoy was engaged by an IED and he counterattacked with his unit to suppress an ambush.

These are three very different missions, but they all wear the same Combat Action Ribbon. The ribbon represents how each of these individuals responded when it mattered most. The commonality is not a shared experience; it is a shared set of values that runs through each of these individuals and that is what is represented when they wear the Combat Action Ribbon.

Military Ribbon Chart
When I first enlisted after high school, I had no idea what all of the colored little ribbons meant that military personnel wore on their uniforms. I left basic training with one ribbon and then earned another when I finished tech school, but when I reported to my first duty station, I still had no idea what most of the colorful ribbons meant.

It was only seven years after the Vietnam War had ended and many of that war’s veterans were still in the ranks. Luckily for me, outside of his office, the first sergeant had a military ribbon chart that was poster-sized and every chance I could I studied it.

When I was on duty, I took mental snapshots of what I had seen and after duty hours I tried to remember what I had seen members of my unit wearing on their chests. I looked up the ribbons on the military ribbon chart on the wall. My regular reviews of the military ribbon chart taught me that in my unit were a lot of men who had served in the Vietnam War, some in other branches of the military like the Army and Marine Corps. By examining the ribbons on their chest and looking for the ribbons on the military ribbon chart, I learned that some had been wounded in combat and others had fought with valor during the war. The military ribbon chart taught me to read the ribbons on their chests, and it showed me the kinds of men I was standing to the left and right of.

Military Ribbon Order
At that time the hardest part for me wasn’t remembering and then recognizing the award, but rather, it was determining the military ribbon order. I did not know why some awards carried more weight than others. I did not understand why my supervisor wanted to award me with an Achievement Medal instead of a Commendation Medal. Frankly, I did not know which one was greater in the military ribbon order until I looked it up on the top’s poster. But there were plenty of things I still didn’t understand. For example, I did not understand why according to military ribbon order, the Professional Military Education (PME) ribbon had greater precedence than an Overseas Short Tour ribbon. From what everyone told me, NCO courses that enabled you to earn the PME ribbon were easy compared to doing a hard tour in Korea (at least in my job). Nonetheless, I studied the military ribbon order on the poster and it helped me as I moved forward in my career.

Military Ribbon Identifier
Today, handheld military ribbon identifiers and military ribbon identifier posters like the one hanging outside my first sergeant’s office are still around, but for the most part they are rare. You can find military ribbon identifiers online at USAMM. Their military ribbon identifier is easy to use. It has an entire web page of ribbons and a user can just click the ribbon and get a brief description of the award and they can determine if they want to add it to a rack or just purchase the lone ribbon. The descriptions help because the Air Force Overseas Long Tour ribbon is almost identical to the Air Force Overseas Short Tour ribbon. Sometimes when the colors and designs of the ribbons so closely resemble each other, it is hard to tell them apart.

Military Ribbon Colors
But usually military ribbons come in assorted colors. The Institute of Heraldry, a U.S. Army agency, is charged with designing the multicolored ribbons which adorn the uniforms of millions of service men and women around the world. Military ribbon colors vary and each ribbon’s colors are symbolic.

For example, the military ribbon colors of the Congressional Medal of Honor represent different things. According to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, the color white represents purity and innocence, and blue signifies vigilance, perseverance and justice. So, in addition to ribbons telling us something about the individuals who wear them, military ribbon colors also have a story to tell about what earning each ribbon means. The colors are symbolic.

Special Military Medals
My first sergeant when I was 19 saw me standing outside of his office once, studying the ribbon poster. It was something I did almost daily. He spoke to me from behind his desk: “There’s only a handful on that whole poster that you really need to know,” he shouted. He came out of his office and pointed to them. “These top ones right here.” Those were special military medals, he added.

He pointed to the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Navy Cross, Air Force Cross, and the Silver Star. I ignorantly asked him why he considered them special military medals. I honestly did not know. He explained that many of the other ribbons on the chart were campaign and service medals, meaning, that they were awarded for participating in a campaign. The National Defense Service Medal, he said, “I got that just for being in the military during Vietnam.” But the individual medals and decorations, those were for personal actions, for gallantry or meritorious service.

The top five decorations, those awards mattered the most and those were special military medals because of the courage and bravery needed to earn them. The Medal of Honor, for example, has been awarded only 3,508 times in its 159-year history. Today there are only 71 living recipients. According to the Department of Defense, the Medal of Honor is the highest military decoration awarded by the U.S. government. It is presented by the president, in the name of congress, and is conferred only upon members of the U.S. armed forces 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 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. There are three distinct versions for the U.S. Army, Air Force, and the Navy, to include the Marine Corps, and the Coast Guard.

The second highest special military medal is the Distinguished Service Cross which is awarded by the Army. While I was in Iraq, one of the officers in my unit earned the DSC after an hours-long firefight in Iraq along with his Iraqi counterparts. The DSC 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. Actions that merit the DSC 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 DSC is equivalent to the Navy Cross and the Air Force Cross. The Air Force and Navy Crosses have the same criteria for award as the DSC and they are special military medals for the same reasons.

The Silver Star is the third highest special military medal and it is awarded for gallantry in action against and enemy. The criteria for award requires the recipient had been 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 meet Medal of Honor or a service cross.

Yellow Ribbon Military
A different kind of military ribbon is the yellow ribbon. This kind of ribbon isn’t worn on the military uniform, but military families tend to wear them as pins to show their support for a loved one who is deployed or overseas. When I was deployed to Iraq, my wife wore a yellow ribbon pin and she also kept a yellow ribbon tied around a tree in our front yard.

The yellow ribbon military memory I have dates back to the Vietnam War. I remember as a kid there was a popular song that came out in the 1970s and was played on the radio all the time. Later, during Operation Desert Storm the yellow ribbon military support had a resurgence and everywhere it seemed that yellow ribbons were on display.

In post-911 America as forces deployed worldwide to participate in the Global War on Terror, yellow ribbon military support peaked with U.S. troop supporters wearing pins, shirts, displaying ribbons on their homes and affixing magnets and stickers to their cars.

When I reflect on my career, my first sergeant was right all those years ago. It was important for me to recognize those top decorations because as a young military member I needed to know my place in the military culture. If I saw anyone wearing any of those top awards, I should watch them, learn from them and strive to respond to situations the way they did if I were ever placed in similar scenarios.

During my 26 years I was privileged to have worked alongside of men who earned the DSC, Silver Star, and the Bronze Star for valor. I have also met Medal of Honor recipients, including the late John Levitow who was the first enlisted man I ever saluted. I say it was a privilege to know them not because of a little piece of ribbon on their chest, but because of how they lived. In all cases I did not know they had earned decorations for gallantry until I saw the ribbons on their chests. They were humble and they did not talk about their actions. 

Luckily, I listened to my first sergeant and learned about military ribbons and their meanings because had I not, I would not realize I was walking among heroes.

Army Ribbons 101

U.S. Army Ribbons
For those of us who have been around the block a time or two in the U.S. Army, it is almost second nature when we discuss U.S. Army ribbons. From memory, most Army veterans with more than a couple of years in uniform can recite the criteria to earn a U.S. Army ribbon and also explain the order of precedence for wear of U.S. Army ribbons.

But if you’re a new soldier or maybe you’re someone who is trying to learn about U.S. Army ribbons to help a family member acquire awards they never received, or you’re putting together a military shadow box for a veteran or a family member, navigating all of the colors, criteria and campaigns can be a conundrum.

Maybe this can break it down for you and help you understand U.S. Army ribbons.

Army Service Ribbon/Army Rainbow Ribbon
The ASR, as it is known in the Army’s vernacular, is the most basic Army ribbon a member of the U.S. Army can earn. According to the Federal Register, the Army Service Ribbon was established by the Secretary of the Army in 1981. It is awarded to members of the U.S. Army for completion of initial entry training. That means that enlisted soldiers earn the Army Service Ribbon after completing their MOS (military occupation specialty) course. Officers earn the Army Service Ribbon after completing their basic/orientation or higher-level course. For both officer and enlisted who are assigned an MOS based on civilian or other service acquired skills, the Army Service Ribbon is awarded after four months of honorable service.

The Army Service Ribbon can be awarded retroactively for training that occurred prior to August 1981 provided personnel had an active Army status during the award period. In addition, all members of the Active Army, Army National Guard and U.S. Army Reserve in an active reserve status are eligible for the award. The Army Service Ribbon is awarded only once, even if an individual completes both enlisted and officer training. Lastly, the Army Service Ribbon can be awarded posthumously before training is completed or requisite time in service if the death is ruled in the line of duty.

The Army Service Ribbon is multicolored representing all of the occupational specialties in the U.S. Army. Because of its rainbow-like colors, the ribbon has earned the nickname Army Rainbow Ribbon. But to avoid confusion, don’t refer to the ASR as the Army Rainbow Ribbon in official channels because you might just come across an NCO who doesn’t think that the word rainbows has a place in the U.S. Army. Just remember that unofficially, the Army Service Ribbon is also called the Army Rainbow Ribbon, but you won’t find any pots of gold when you earn it, and remember that Army Rainbow Ribbon is just a nickname used within the ranks.

Army Good Conduct Ribbon
The Army Good Conduct Medal (AGCM) and the Army Good Conduct Ribbon are one in the same. When a soldier receives the medal, they receive it in a box that has a full-sized Army Good Conduct Medal along with an Army Good Conduct Ribbon. The Army Good Conduct Ribbon represents the Army Good Conduct Medal when a soldier wears a ribbon rack on their Class A or Class B uniform. The Army Good Conduct Ribbon represents the AGCM.

According to U.S. Army Human Resources Command, the AGCM/Army Good Conduct Ribbon was established in June 1941 and it is awarded for exemplary behavior, efficiency, and fidelity in active federal military service. It is awarded on a selective basis to each soldier who distinguishes him- or herself from among his or her fellow soldiers by their exemplary conduct, efficiency, and fidelity throughout a specified period of continuous enlisted active federal military service. There is no right or entitlement to the medal until the immediate commander has approved the award and the award has been announced in permanent orders. That’s key because a lot of soldiers believe that it is an automatic award, but you have to keep your nose clean.

The first award of the AGCM/Army Good Conduct Ribbon may be approved for more than one year, but less than three years of active federal military service. Subsequent awards must meet the three years of continuous active federal military service rule.

The following are eligible for the AGCM/Army Good Conduct Ribbon: Active component enlisted soldiers, Active Guard Reserve (AGR) enlisted personnel serving on extended periods of active duty (other than for training) under Titles 10 and 32 U.S. Code are eligible for award of the AGCM/Army Good Conduct Ribbon for qualifying service beginning on or after Sept. 1, 1982, provided no period of the service has been duplicated by the same period of service for which the soldier has been awarded the Army Reserve Components Achievement Medal. The AGCM/Army Good Conduct Ribbon qualification period may commence anytime during the three years immediately preceding the September 1982 effective date provided no portion of service for the AGCM/Army Good Conduct Ribbon is included in a period of service for which the ARCAM was awarded.

The AGCM/Army Good Conduct Ribbon is retroactive for eligible Army of the United States (AUS) enlisted personnel and other Army enlisted personnel as may be directed by the Secretary of the Army, as well as Ready Reserve enlisted personnel ordered to active duty under Title 10 U.S. Code.

The AGCM/Army Good Conduct Ribbon receives higher precedence in the order of wear than the Army Service Ribbon because it is an individual military medal that is earned through honorable service. The AGCM/Army Good Conduct Ribbon also has promotion points value.

Army Overseas Service Ribbon
The Army Overseas Service Ribbon is one of the more confusing Army ribbon criteria. In the past, deployments to combat zones did not qualify personnel for the Army Overseas Service Ribbon, but the rules have changed and some stipulations have been rescinded. Here’s what U.S. Army Human Resources Command says about the Army Overseas Service Ribbon.

The Army Overseas Service Ribbon was established by the Secretary of the Army on April 10, 1981. Effective Aug. 1, 1981, the Army Overseas Service Ribbon is awarded to all members of the Active Army, Army National Guard, and Army Reserve in an active reserve status for successful completion of overseas tours. The ribbon may be awarded retroactively to personnel who were credited with a normal overseas tour completion before Aug. 1, 1981, provided they had an Active Army status on or after Aug. 1, 1981.

In order to receive the Army Overseas Service Ribbon, soldiers must be credited with a normal overseas tour completion. Soldiers who have overseas service with another branch of service (Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps) must be credited with normal overseas tour completion by that service to qualify for the award of the Army Overseas Service Ribbon. Additionally, soldiers who served in U.S. Army deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan are now eligible for the Army Overseas Service Ribbon provided they served a minimum of 11 cumulative months (within a 24-month period) or nine continuous months in a temporary change of station or temporary tour of duty status.

The Army Overseas Service Ribbon is worn under the Army Service Ribbon and the Army Good Conduct Ribbon in order of precedence.

Army Ribbon Chart/Army Ribbon Builder
The order of wear is probably one of the most common mistakes soldiers make on their uniform ribbon racks. Thanks to eagle-eyed NCOs, the troops usually look sharp before inspections, boards and other significant events. These seasoned professionals have an extraordinarily refined attention to detail and most can spot an infraction from across a room.

Long ago back before computers were commonplace and before the Internet existed, I was a junior enlisted man and I went before a below-the-zone promotion board. I was so nervous that I put my three ribbons on backwards, so they were not in proper order. It was a tough lesson in the value of attention to detail and proper preparation. Needless to say, I didn’t get the promotion. I had no excuse other than the fact that I was unprepared, but today there is definitely no excuse for mistakes of that kind.

Nonetheless, it happens, when you’re new or inexperienced despite the fact that there are many U.S. Army resources that explain how ribbons should be placed and ordered in a ribbon rack. There are numerous official U.S. Army ribbon charts, some are online as images, some are available as a hard copy, and most are rather helpful, but nothing is more reliable and foolproof than using USAMM’s Army Ribbon chart and Army Ribbon builder.  

Once a visitor is on the USAMM’s Army ribbon chart page, all they have to do is find their ribbons and medals, select the ribbons or medals they have earned and USAMM’s Army ribbon builder will build a virtual ribbon rack and place them in order of precedence according to the U.S. military uniform regulation of each service. It is literally as easy as clicking your mouse. There is no need to look up regulations, examine pictures, or explore Army ribbon charts. All you have to do is click and the Army ribbon builder will construct a ribbon rack for you.

Were you in the U.S. Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps or Coast Guard and now you’re in the U.S. Army? It doesn’t matter, just find your ribbons and awards on USAMM’s Army ribbon chart, select those you’ve earned and USAMM’s Army ribbon builder will do the rest. The best part is once the order is submitted it is in the capable hands of military ribbon experts, many of them veterans themselves, who will use what you selected in the Army ribbon chart and assemble your Army ribbon rack using your input in the Army ribbon builder.

Army Ribbon Order
In the latter part of my Army career I was fortunate to have the ability to use USAMM’s Army ribbon chart and Army ribbon builder to construct my ribbon rack for promotion pictures and to update my ribbon rack after receiving an award. I never had to worry about the Army ribbon order when I used USAMM.

When you have been in for a few decades, the ribbon rack gets a bit large and trying to figure out the Army ribbon order can be time consuming for even the most seasoned soldier. There are regulations to review, memos, you name it. For a person who is unfamiliar with the military, trying to put together a veteran’s ribbon rack can be confusing.

USAMM takes the mystery out of the Army ribbon order by offering simple to use, guaranteed technology that can help anyone build a ribbon rack that has ribbons in the proper Army ribbon order.

A Military Shadow Box is a Time Capsule of a Military Journey

Military Shadow Box Ideas
I spent 26 years wearing a U.S. military uniform in places like South Korea and West Germany during the height of the Cold War, fighting the drug war along the U.S. border in the 1990s, and later in Iraq to support the Global War on Terror in the early 2000s. I served on active duty, in the National Guard and the Reserve, and as an enlisted man and later as an officer. I spent time in the U.S. Air Force and in the U.S. Army before finally deciding to drop my papers and head to military retirement. 

As I approached my separation day in 2010, my commander broached the topic of a retirement ceremony. To me, it seemed unnecessary. I had attended what seemed like a million retirement ceremonies and in all of them the retiree seemed like a wise elder. Most were sergeants major, colonels, generals or chief warrant officers five. A lowly major didn’t seem to fit the mold for a retirement ceremony, in my opinion. I had seen others retire at lesser ranks, but it just wasn’t something I wanted for myself. So, I decided to forego the formal ceremony and I opted to instead go unceremoniously into the sunset. 

A couple of months after my retirement was finalized, I received a medal in the mail from my former commander as well as a memento given to me by the men and women of the unit. I put the memento in my office, but when I went to toss the medal into a plastic bin, I realized I had a lot of awards uncaringly thrown into a container similar to the ones where my kids stowed their toys. That’s when I started to think about organizing my military awards and possibly putting together a military shadow box that would capture my military service. 

In many military retirement ceremonies that I attended, the commander presented a token of appreciation from the unit or a military shadow box, sometimes both, to the retiring military member. In my case, I was happy to hang up my boots and move on, but a few months after my retirement, staring at the bin full of medals, I wondered if I should do something more meaningful with the awards that I had earned.

Like me, my old unit had moved on and they had already given me a wonderful retirement gift and medal. There was no turning back. I would not get a military shadow box from them despite my change of mind. It was also clear that my family would not put together something like a military shadow box because they knew me as a man who didn’t serve for or value medals (that’s why they were in a plastic bin). Therefore, as I stood there looking at the bin full of awards, it dawned on me that I should organize these awards because they were from service to the nation and that service had also been done by my family. Those awards belonged to them as much as they did to me. At that moment I decided I would get a military shadow box. But where would I start? 

The history of military shadow boxes, like some other military customs and courtesies, cannot be traced or attributed to any particular source. I’m not a big fan of spreading misinformation, so unless there is an attributable source, those myths won’t get repeated here. I reached out the U.S. Army’s Center of Military History and due to renovations at their facility, they are unable to respond to queries until July 2020 and a leading military historian for the Smithsonian Institute told me he does not have any information about the origins of military shadow boxes, so check back here and we might have a creditable source that knows the origins of the military shadow box. Until then, without an attributed source, all information concerning the origins of military shadow boxes is just internet regurgitation.

Military Shadow Box with Flag
While I did not own a traditional military shadow box during my 26 years in uniform, I did have a military shadow box with flag that I received when I became a commissioned officer. It held my second lieutenant bars and a certificate from the U.S. Capitol. My path from the enlisted to the commissioned ranks had been long and arduous, so to celebrate, I had an American flag flown over the U.S. Capitol to commemorate my officer commission date. For some people receiving an officer appointment might not seem like a big deal, but for me, the first generation born here to immigrant parents, becoming an officer was a major milestone and it represented a significant commitment in the name of my family. It was a special day for me. 

That U.S. flag flown over the U.S. Capitol in 1996 was stored in a military shadow box until 2004 when I took it out of its case and brought it with me to Iraq. It was with me during my entire yearlong tour at Phoenix Base in Baghdad, Iraq. When I returned from the war, the flag was placed back into the military shadow box. 

I started to think that maybe my military shadow box with a flag could be combined with the medals in the bin and I could make a rather large military shadow box with flag that would include not just the flag, but all of my awards. As I thought about my options, I considered what I had seen over the years when co-workers and peers retired or when their time in the service came to an end. 

Military Uniform Shadow Box
During my career, I had been to plenty of ceremonies. When I served at the Pentagon, I remember attending a retirement ceremony where a senior master sergeant was presented with a military uniform shadow box that was absolutely beautiful. I had never seen one before and it had the Class A jacket and pants from the NCO’s uniform in a large military uniform shadow box. Half of her jacket was in the case with all of her ribbons, badges, stripes, and awards. It also had an engraved NCO sword. It was impressive and it would definitely be a conversation piece, but given I had served in two branches of the military, which uniform should I choose? And during my career, I had worn three different utility uniforms and four different types of Class A uniforms. Which uniform would I pick to put into my military uniform shadow box? Since I had a lot of varying uniforms in my past, I started thinking about the practicality of a military shadow box chest.

Military Shadow Box Chest
Years ago, when I was interviewing a military veteran who had fought in World War II, he showed me his military shadow box chest and it was like walking into a military museum. He had transformed his military footlocker into a portable, hands-on, memorial of his war service. In it, he had pictures of his fallen friends, a Japanese bayonet from when he served with Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines, boots he had worn on violent beach landings in the Pacific theater and other revered items. Today, most military personnel are issued duffel bags, but military shadow box chests can still be purchased to protect the valuable items military members accrue throughout their career. Whereas military shadow boxes focus more on representing a person’s military service, a military shadow box chest can preserve military items for decades if created by professionals. Which brings me to a point.

How to Make a Military Shadow Box
I thought about building my own military shadow box. I became enamored with the idea of finding a high-quality wood like cherry, mahogany, or oak, and then devotedly spending time in a shop designing it, cutting it, assembling it, and making it my own. Just like my career, I would take care to find the right pieces, assemble it, smooth out the rough patches, carving here and there, and ultimately try to piece together something of value. I had taken woodworking in junior high school, so I knew my way around a wood shop, but it had been decades since I had worked on anything significant. And back in the day, I made felt-lined jewelry boxes that didn’t close properly, kitchen cutting boards that were a bit rough around the edges and picture frames that weren’t exactly square; nothing as elaborate as a military shadow box. 

Because I had invested so much of my time and my life into the military, it made sense that I should take the time and build something from scratch, but as I studied plans and examined the time commitment, costs, required skills and tools, it just didn’t make sense for me to build my own military shadow box. Precisely because I had invested so much time into my military service, I started thinking that my time in uniform was worthy of having a professional create something I could be proud of that reflected my 26 years in uniform. I didn’t want my military service to be represented by something that looked like a seventh grader had made it. I wanted a professionally made military shadow box.

Military Retirement Shadow Box
I collected my DD Form 214s, all of my awards, medals, badges, from the bin, and corresponding orders and memorandums, and I planned to create my own military retirement shadow box. I had 21 medals and about five different professional, combat and service badges, as well as NCO stripes and eight or nine rows of ribbons, so the military retirement shadow box couldn’t be too small. I went to a local craft store and looked at the military retirement shadow boxes in their inventory, but the quality seemed cheap for the special items I wanted to showcase and the wood frame was low-end pressed imitation wood. Not to mention, I had to figure out how to mount all of my awards into the military retirement shadow box—which meant the awards that had actually been presented to me, for which I had renewed personal value—would have to have fasteners attached to them. Not to mention, laying out this military retirement shadow box required some level of creativity and an ability to work with crafts—cutting, gluing, engraving, shaping, designing. That’s not my forte.

I wanted to give myself something nice for 26 years-worth of military service. I did not have a retirement ceremony, nor did I take a special vacation somewhere to celebrate my retirement milestone. I knew if it was up to me the end product would not be very good if I was making it, so after a lot of thought about how to honor my military service, I decided a military retirement shadow box would be perfect for my home office and I would leave it up to the pros.

Custom Military Shadow Boxes
The great thing about military shadow boxes is that you do not have to retire in order to have one. Any veteran who is proud of their service can get a custom military shadow box made to show their military pride. I’ve come to realize that it is important because almost everyone can serve, but most do not.

In my case, I told one of my war buddies I was thinking about putting together a military shadow box, and he recommended I trust USAMM to build a custom military shadow box for me.

USAMM asked me to send them a list of everything I had earned and my friend ordered a custom military shadow box that included everything from my service in the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force. My war buddy gifted the military retirement shadow box to me as a retirement present.

Today, the custom military shadow box hangs in my home office over my officer commission, testimony to all I have seen and done for this country, but it also represents the bonds that are forged by those who serve together in war and peace.

That’s something to be proud of and something that doesn’t belong in a bin.