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.” That award eventually became what is known today, the Purple Heart, awarded to U.S. military personnel killed or wounded in action against an enemy (more information on the Purple Heart is below).
The second medal created specifically for U.S. military personnel was the Medal of Honor in 1862 (see the Army section below for more information).
The first U.S. Air Force medal created was the Air Force Commendation Medal. In 1958, Secretary of the Air Force James H. Douglas, Jr. created it to replace the Army Commendation medal which used to be presented to U.S. Army Air Force personnel. In 1980, the Air Force Achievement Medal was created for service that doesn’t warrant the commendation medal. From there, the Air Force has created numerous badges and medals for their personnel.
It's important to note that in 1947 when the Air Force was established, Congress authorized the Air Force to make its own Medals of Honor, Distinguished Service Crosses (what would become the Air Force Cross) and the Airman’s Medal. The Air Force did not create its own Medal of Honor until 1965.
The first Air Force recipient of the Medal of Honor was Maj. Bernard F. Fisher in 1967 for action in the Vietnam War. The first airman to receive the Medal of Honor, however, was Capt. Edward Rickenbacker in 1918, then a part of the Army’s Air Service.
No airman had received the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War until it was posthumously awarded to U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. John Chapman for his actions in Afghanistan, March 4, 2002.
Like other services, Airman are eligible for numerous awards and decorations, including some from sister services and foreign nations. The top three medals for gallantry in the Air Force are the Medal of Honor, Air Force Cross and the Silver Star.
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.”
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. 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. 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.
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.
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.
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 WarEdwin 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 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.
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 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 meet Medal of Honor or the Distinguished Service Cross.
The U.S. Coast Guard is considered one of the branches of service of the U.S. military, informally, but it is officially not a part of the U.S. Department of Defense during peacetime. It is actually a part of the Department of Homeland Security. In times of war, the Coast Guard is realigned and falls under the command and control of the U.S. Navy. In 2010, Congress established the Coast Guard Cross, the Coast Guard's second highest military award for valor in combat. It is intended to recognize members of the Coast Guard for extraordinary heroism in action while not serving under the U.S. Navy. Coast Guard members serving under the Department of the Navy are eligible for the Navy Cross. The Coast Guard Cross has never been awarded.
The president of the United States may award the Coast Guard Cross to any person who distinguishes themselves by extraordinary heroism not justifying the award of the Medal of Honor, while serving in any capacity with the Coast Guard, when the Coast Guard is not operating under the Department of the Navy, under one of the following conditions: While engaged in action against an enemy of the United States; while engaged in military operations involving conflict with a foreign opposing force or international terrorist organization; 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.
The Coast Guard is eligible to earn the Medal of Honor when under Navy control, and in fact, in the Coast Guard’s long history, only one man has earned the decoration. Signalman First Class Douglas Munro earned the Medal of Honor in 1942 at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. He posthumously received it for heroism while leading a group of Higgins boats during an evacuation of a Marine battalion trapped by the Japanese. Munro used his boat for evacuation and to draw enemy fire, at one point, positioning himself between the evacuating Marines and enemy.
Coast Guard personnel have also earned the Silver Star, the Nation’s third highest award for bravery. In World War II, several men earned Silver Stars for their efforts operating landing craft at Normandy on D-Day and several more earned them in the Pacific theater.
Corporal John F. Mackie was a U.S. Marine on the USS Galena in May 1862 when during the attack on Fort Darling, a confederate fort, Mackie rallied the Marines after an entire unit on his ship was killed or wounded. Mackie cleared the deck and resumed the attack without awaiting orders. Mackie would become the first Marine to earn the Medal of Honor.
In the war on terror, three Marines have earned the Medal of Honor; William Carpenter, Dakota Meyer, and Jason Dunham.The Marines, like other branches of service, recognize the Medal of Honor, Navy Cross and Silver Star as the top three decorations for valor, but the Defense Distinguished Service Medal is actually ranked in the third spot in order of precedence on Marine Corps awards with the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross in the one and two position respectively.
The Silver Star ranks fifth behind the Distinguished Service Medal in the order of precedence. The Defense Distinguished Service Medal and the Distinguished Service Medal are normally presented to high ranking general officers for non-combat service, which is likely why they are rated so high on the awards and decorations order of precedence for all the branches of service.
The Navy’s top three awards for gallantry, like other services are the Medal of Honor, Navy Cross and the Silver Star. Like the other military branches, the Defense Distinguished Service Medal and the Distinguished Service Medal are rated above the Silver Star, but those are two peacetime awards mostly presented to flag officers so they are ranked higher solely for this reason.
Like the other services, the bulk of the awards earned by sailors will be Navy/Marine Corps Commendation and the Navy/Marine Corps Achievement Medals, including the Meritorious Service Medal.
The Combat Action Ribbon is a U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps decoration awarded to sea service members who have actively participated in ground or surface combat. The Combat Action Ribbon was established in 1969 and is awarded to members of the Navy and Marine Corps with the ranks of or lower than captain and colonel respectively. The Coast Guard created its own Combat Action Ribbon in 2008.
Award of the CAR is restricted to those who were engaged by the enemy, or were under hostile fire, or were physically attacked by the enemy. The service member's engagement must have been honorable to the United States and to the satisfaction of the service. The service member must show evidence that they were engaged in direct combat, not merely present in a combat zone.
The CAR is a ribbon-only decoration. Other services, like the Army and Air Force, award badges or medals like the Combat Infantryman Badge, Combat Action Badge, or Combat Medical Badge. The U.S. Air Force awards the Air Force Combat Action Medal.
In full dress uniform, medals are worn on the member's left side, but because the CAR is not a medal, the ribbon is worn on the right side of the member's uniform. The CAR is the highest rated ribbon in the U.S. military decorations order of precedence and ranked higher are medals for meritorious achievement and combat valor.As previously stated, the Medal of Honor started as a medal for the sea services, but within months it was presented to Army personnel in the Civil War. Prior to the war on terror the last time a Navy sailor received the Medal of Honor was for actions in Vietnam.
Since 9/11, four sailors awarded the Medal of Honor, all of them Navy SEALs. They are Britt Slabinski, Edward C. Byers Jr., Michael A. Monsoor, and Michael P. Murphy.
Every state has a National Guard that falls under the control of a governor. The District of Columbia and three U.S. territories also have a National Guard. The National Guard is one of three components that comprise the total force. There is an active duty component, a reserve component and a National Guard component. The Guard is a part of the nation’s reserve forces. It is comprised of the Army and Air National Guard. Each state has its own military awards and decorations, presented to Guard members for service to the state. Guard personnel, however, are also eligible for federal military awards and decorations when they are activated by the federal government for national emergencies or times of war.
For example, a New York National Guard member may be awarded the New York National Guard Conspicuous Service Cross for distinguishing themselves by exceptionally meritorious service in a capacity of great responsibility. The service can be performed while in an active status as a member of the New York National Guard. Similarly, a Texas National Guard member might be eligible for the Texas National Guard Humanitarian Service Ribbon which is awarded to a service member who does not meet the criteria for the federal Humanitarian Service Medal; is a member of the Texas National Guard; and while serving on state active duty or active duty under state authority, participates satisfactorily in a mission under civilian authority to protect life or property during or soon after a natural disaster or civil unrest in the state. The National Guards of the various states all have various awards and decorations, like their federal counterparts, to recognize participation in operations and to distinguish exceptional service and valor. However, most National Guard personnel also wear a variety of awards and decorations they received during periods of federal service, and they also wear many of the same badges earned by their federal counterparts, earned at active duty schools for airborne, Rangers, Special Forces, flight school, and other schools.
Many people often do not realize that working alongside of uniformed personnel are U.S. Defense Department civilian employees. Many of them work for the Departments of the Army, Air Force, and Navy, as well as directly for the joint activities, but they also work in the reserve and National Guard components as civilians. They are often unsung heroes, but they also receive awards and decorations.
There are many civilian awards in the U.S. federal government. Each agency has various awards for service and performance. Below are a few.
The Armed Forces Civilian Service Medal recognizes the contributions and accomplishments of Department of Defense civilians in directly supporting the military forces whose members are engaged in military operations of a prolonged peacekeeping or humanitarian nature. This award honors civilians who support designated operations under the same or similar conditions as military members.
The Global War on Terrorism Medal is established to recognize the contributions and accomplishments of the civilian workforce of the Department of Defense in direct support of the armed forces, whose members are engaged in operations to combat terrorism in all forms throughout the world.
Created in 2018, the Navy Civilian Service Achievement Medal is awarded to Department of the Navy and U.S. Marine Corps civilians who, while serving in a capacity within the Navy or Marine Corps, are recognized for sustained performance or specific achievement of a superlative nature at the equivalent level of the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal awarded to military personnel.
The Army also has achievement and commendation medals for civilians. The Department of the Army Civilian Service Commendation Medal is an honorary award presented by the U.S. Army to civilian employees for commendable service or achievement.
The Air Force Meritorious Civilian Service Award Medal is granted to Air Force civilian employees upon accomplishing the responsibilities assigned to them for at least one year in an exemplary manner.
The Coast Guard offers six awards for civilians, including the Commandant’s Superior Achievement Award, and Coast Guard civilians are also eligible for Department of Homeland Security Secretary’s awards.
The U.S. Merchant Marine are civilian mariners that operate federally owned merchant vessels. The civilian mariners and the merchant vessels are managed by the government and private sectors. They engage in commerce or transportation of goods and services in waters around the world. The Merchant Marine transports cargo and passengers during peacetime; in times of war, the Merchant Marine can be an auxiliary to the U.S. Navy, and can be mobilized to carry military personnel and materiel.
Merchant mariners operate and maintain merchant ships, tugboats, towboats, ferries, dredges, excursion vessels, charter boats and other waterborne craft on the oceans, the Great Lakes, rivers, canals, harbors, and other waterways. They also have a service academy similar to the military service academies.
According to the Department of Transportation, which the Merchant Marine is a part of, more than 350,000 medals and war zone ribbons have been distributed to eligible merchant mariners for approved conflicts including World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, and Operations Restore Hope and United Shield and related operations in Somalia.
The Merchant Marine Expeditionary Medal is awarded to American merchant seamen who serve on U.S.-flag ships in support of operations involving American and Allied military forces. It was first authorized for service in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. This medal is also awarded to mariners who served in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom and most recently in 2016 for Operations Restore Hope and United Shield and related operations in Somalia.
The Merchant Marine Medal for Outstanding Achievement is awarded to merchant mariners who have participated in an act or operation of humanitarian nature on behalf of an individual or groups of individuals. This medal can also be awarded to those in the maritime industry who have dedicated years of service or achievement and/or given extraordinary contributions to the maritime industry.
The Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps all have a reserve component that compliments them. These forces are exactly how they are titled, a reserve force that can augment and/or support the primary active force.
Given their unique role in the military, reservists are eligible for medals that are available only to members of their specific component. For example, the Air Reserve Forces Meritorious Service Medal is presented to enlisted members of the U.S. Air Force Reserve for exemplary behavior, efficiency and fidelity during a four-year period. It is basically the Air Force Reserve’s version of the Air Force Good Conduct Medal. The Army Reserve has a good conduct-like medal as well. The Army Reserve Components Achievement Medal is a Good Conduct Medal that is issued to a member of the U.S. Army Reserve. The medal requires that a reservist complete three years of honorable service as an active member of a reserve unit. The medal may be awarded to all enlisted soldiers, warrant and commissioned officers up to and including the grade of colonel.
The Marine Forces Reserve has the Selected Marine Corps Reserve Medal that recognizes members of the Marine Corps Reserve who have met specific service requirements. To be eligible for this medal, Marine reservists must have attended at least 90 percent of all scheduled drills in a year for three consecutive years.
The Armed Forces Reserve Medal is a service medal that recognizes service performed by members of the reserve components (all branches) and is awarded to both officers and enlisted personnel. The medal is considered a successor award to the Naval Reserve Medal and the Marine Corps Reserve Ribbon.
When the Armed Forces Reserve Medal is awarded for periods of service, it includes an hourglass device. Depending on the length of service, a bronze, silver, gold, or bronze and gold hourglass are worn on the suspension ribbon and service ribbon, indicating 10, 20, 30, or 40 years of service. If the reservist or National Guard member is mobilized, the medal gets an "M" device.
The various service branches also have awards that reflect if an individual has completed training overseas or deployed on the seas as reservists.
Standard bronze finished medals are exactly the same medals as those that are presented. The medals all vary in color, some bronze, some silver, but the finishes are all the same and they tend to have about the same luster as a circulated coin. Old school military personnel tend to polish their own medals once they’ve had them placed on a rack. This brings out a sense of pride when the medals glisten. These standard medals are what most military members wear and they are appropriate for most occasions.
Anodized medals undergo an electrochemical process that changes the medal’s surface into a decorative finish that is more durable and corrosion-resistant. These medals are extraordinarily shiny, sort of like patent leather shoes. Most military personnel reserve these flashy medals for formal events where the mess dress uniform is required.
Full size military medals are authorized for wear by honorably discharged veterans or military retirees and active military personnel on active, guard or reserve status. In wearing full size medals, it is important to ensure you are authorized to wear the medals before you place them on your uniform or civilian attire. Check your records and it is also important that military personnel consult their service’s uniform regulations to ensure the awards are properly worn and displayed.
Medals can be earned for performance (decoration) or for service. Medals are mounted on racks for wear, whether they are minis or full size, except for the Medal of Honor which is worn around the neck.Service medals are awarded for participation in a specific operation or mission. For example, the Humanitarian Service Medal or the Global War on Terror Service Medal are both service medals and it is easy to figure out because they have the term “Service Medal” in their name, sort of like the Korea Defense Service Medal. Those medals tell everyone that you’ve “been there, done that.” Other service medals are presented for good conduct. Campaign-centric medals are medals like the Iraqi Campaign Medal or the Afghanistan Campaign Medal that represent participation in a particular campaign during a specific period of time.
Decoration medals are awarded for meritorious service and bravery and therefore tend to rank higher in the order of precedence. Finally, decorations have a wide array of shapes like hexagons, gears, stars and crosses whereas service award medallions tend to by round.
Miniature medals, or mini-medals as they are often called, are authorized for wear by honorably discharged veterans or military retirees and active military personnel on active, guard or reserve status. Miniature medals are replicas of regular size medals made to a scale of one-half the size of the original, except for the Medal of Honor for which there is no miniature.
In wearing miniature medals, it is important to ensure you are authorized to wear the medals before you place them on your uniform or civilian attire. As always, check your records. It is also important that military personnel consult their service’s uniform regulations to ensure the awards are properly worn and displayed. For example, in the U.S. Army, only miniature decorations and service medals are authorized for wear on the mess and evening mess uniforms. Personnel will not wear full-size medals, service and training ribbons, or U.S. and foreign unit award emblems with miniature medals. Only the dress miniature-size combat and special skill badges are worn with miniature medals.
Each branch of service has a uniform regulation. Generally speaking, minis are reserved for formal attire or evening wear. The Army uniform regulation, AR 670-1 states “Retired personnel and former members of the Army may wear all categories of medals described in this regulation on appropriate civilian clothing. This includes clothes designed for veteran and patriotic organizations on Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day, and Armed Forces Day, as well as at formal occasions of ceremony and social functions of a military nature. Personnel may wear either full-sized or miniature medals. Personnel who wear medals on civilian clothes should place the medals on the clothing in approximately the same location and in the same manner as for the Army uniform, so they look similar to medals worn on the Army uniform.”
It's important to note that there are plenty of opportunities to wear miniature medals as a military veteran or retiree, but that means complying with your service’s uniform regulations. For the most part, miniature medals are never worn on casual clothing like t-shirts or polo shirts, and they should never be affixed to baseball hats or garrison capsof veteran service organizations. Remember, you earned them so treat them and what they represent respectfully.
Wear them proudly in a coat and tie and check your service’s uniform regs for how to align them on your jacket’s pocket or lapel.
Veterans and retirees can wear miniature medals to military balls, funerals, veteran-centric events, national holidays, military specific days, memorials, parades, military conventions, and to speaking engagements, to name a few. Most of those occasions require a coat and tie if you plan to wear your mini medals.