The Depot

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.