Understanding Military Medals and Honors

Contributed by Liz Zaczek

Ever wonder about the meaning of the colorful ribbons and other medals a service member in full dress uniform is wearing?  Even without seeing them in person, military related TV shows and movies, displays in museums and photos on social media are full of them. There are hundreds of military awards and decorations, each with their own significance, criteria and history, across the branches of the military. Some are easier to identify and more well known, The Medal of Honor and the Purple Heart, than others. We’ll take a look at several military honors and awards across the different branches of service.

Medal of Honor

The Medal of Honor, sometimes informally known as the Congressional Medal of Honor,  is the highest military decoration that may be awarded by the United States government. It is presented by the President of the United States, in the name of Congress, and is conferred only upon members of the United States military who” distinguish themselves through conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty”. Unfortunately, it is common for this award to be given posthumously. 

  • 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.

Since it was created during the Civil War in 1861, the medal has only been given to the bravest of the brave” and is awarded to service members who have displayed exceptional valor on the battlefield against an enemy. There are three versions of the medal – for the Army, Air Force and Navy (Coast Guard and Marine Corps personnel receive the Navy version) – and all recipients are given the award by the current president.

Purple Heart

Perhaps among the most well known military awards to civilians, the Purple Heart and its criteria are often confused with other military medals awarded in the United States. Officially established in 1782 by President George Washington as the “Badge of Military Merit,” the Purple Heart was originally intended to be given to soldiers who displayed gallantry in battle. Both enlisted soldiers and non-commissioned officers were eligible to be awarded for their service, which was unique at the time, since most military awards were only given to commissioned officers.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur later reestablished the Purple Heart to what we know it as today: an award given to those wounded or killed in combat while engaged with the enemy. The Purple Heart can be given to any service member in any branch of the military, and several famous recipients include author Kurt Vonnegut, former President John F. Kennedy  and former senator John McCain.

Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross and Air Force Cross

The Distinguished Service Cross,  Navy Cross and Air Force Cross are respectively the second highest military decoration that can be awarded to a member of the military. Each 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 (Air Force).

Silver Star

The Silver Star is the third-highest military combat decoration that can be awarded to a member of the United States Armed Forces. 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 the Medal of Honor or a Service Cross (Distinguished Service Cross, the Navy Cross or the Air Force Cross).

 

Distinguished Flying Cross

Created in 1926, the Distinguished Flying Cross, one of the highest U.S. military awards, can be bestowed to any member of the Army, Navy, Air Force or Department of Homeland Security for heroism or extraordinary achievement while in aerial flight and engaged in action with the enemy. Among the award’s notable recipients, including former President George H. W. Bush (who served in the Navy), Thomas Patten Stafford (a former Air Force pilot, NASA astronaut and commander of Apollo 10) and Eileen Collins (a former Air Force colonel and NASA astronaut, who was the first female pilot and commander of a space shuttle).

Replacing Military Awards

Over time, recipients of the aforementioned military awards (and others) or their family, may find need for a replacement medal or decoration. In general, the military services will fulfill replacement medal requests for the veteran at no cost. This includes family members with the signed authorization of the veteran.Complete the authorization by specifying the information and/or document(s) requested.  Be sure to sign and date the authorization. Authorizations are honored for one year from the date of signature. 

While replacement requests from the next of kin of a deceased veteran vary from branch to branch, proof of death of the veteran such as a copy of death certificate, letter from funeral home or published obituary generally are required. For specific information regarding next of kin criteria and replacement details, visit the National Archives website page on the best way to request a new medal or other award.

Regardless of branch of the service our nation’s active military members and veterans who’ve earned these prestigious awards have shown what it means to be among the “bravest of the brave” and a grateful nation thanks you.