Military medals and what they mean
In 1787, Col. David Humphreys wrote: "Few inventions could be more happily calculated to diffuse the knowledge and preserve the memory of illustrious characters and splendid events, than medals.”
The Revolutionary War colonel and aide de camp to General George Washington made that statement more than a decade after the Continental Congress first instituted the tradition of issuing medals to recognize and show appreciation for distinguished military service in 1776. Nearly two and a half centuries later, his words still ring true. In honor of Veterans Day this year, Stacker is taking a look at military medals and what they mean.
The awarding of medals remains one of the most time-honored, cherished, and sacred traditions in the culture and history of the United States Armed Forces. All five branches—the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard—award medals to standout troops and the units in which they serve. In many cases, the honor is extended to members of the Reserves and National Guard. Military medals can recognize bravery or gallantry, heroism or meritorious service. They may be awarded for actions during peacetime or war, in defense of civilians or fellow servicemembers, and they can be earned for actions taken during the course of combat or outside of direct military conflict.
Some medals denote extraordinary service in aerial flight, some are specific to ground operations, and others are reserved only for those in the Sea Services. There are medals specific to the issuing branch, while others can be bestowed on any member of any branch of service. Medals can indicate service in a specific conflict, like Afghanistan or the Global War on Terror or honor individual service. Plus, there are medals are issued to entire units. Here's a look at the most important and storied medals issued by the United States Armed Forces. Keep reading to learn what they mean, what it takes to earn one, who issues them, and where they rank in terms of prominence.
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Medal of Honor
The Medal of Honor is the highest and most coveted military decoration the U.S. government can bestow on a member of the Armed Forces. Presented by the President in the name of Congress, there are three distinct variations: one for the Air Force, one for the Army, and one for the Coast Guard, Marine Corps, and Navy. According to the Defense Department, the Medal of Honor "is conferred only upon members of the United States Armed Forces who distinguish themselves through conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty."
Distinguished Service Cross
The Distinguished Service Cross is the second-highest honor that can be awarded to a member of the Army. It recognizes heroism in combat that is extraordinary enough to rise above the requirements for all other medals save the Medal of Honor.
Like the Distinguished Service Cross, the Navy Cross recognizes heroism of such a high degree that it supersedes all medals except the Medal of Honor. It is awarded to members of the Navy or members of the Coast Guard when operating under Navy command.
Coast Guard Cross
The Coast Guard Cross is awarded for extraordinary heroism in combat. The second-highest honor a member of the Coast Guard can receive beyond only the Medal of Honor, it is awarded to members who serve in any capacity with the Coast Guard when the Coast Guard is not operating under Navy command.
Air Force Cross
The Air Force Cross is awarded to members of the Air Force who display gallantry in combat that don't quite merit the Medal of Honor, but that supersede the requirements of all lesser medals. It is the second-highest honor a member of the Air Force can receive.
The Silver Star is the third-highest decoration that can be awarded to a member of the Armed Forces. It recognizes gallantry in action that rises above the requirements for all medals except for the Medal of Honor and a branch-specific Service Cross.
Defense Distinguished Service Medal
Established in 1970 by President Richard Nixon, the Defense Distinguished Service Medal is awarded by the Secretary of Defense. It recognizes exceptionally meritorious service in a position of great responsibility while assigned to a joint services activity. It is the military's highest joint-service decoration and the highest non-combat award.
Homeland Security Distinguished Service Medal
Like all Distinguished Service medals, the Homeland Security Distinguished Service Medal is one of the highest honors in the U.S. military. Established by an executive order of President George W. Bush in 2003, retroactive to 2002, it can be awarded to any member of the Armed Forces.
Distinguished Service Medal
First established in 1918, the Distinguished Service Medal is awarded to members of the Army for both combat and non-combat valor. The fourth-highest honor in the Army, it recognizes exceptionally meritorious service in a position of great responsibility.
Navy and Marine Distinguished Service Medal
As with the other branches, the Navy and Marine Distinguished Service Medal is the fourth-highest honor for the Navy and Marine Corps. Established in 1919, it recognizes exceptionally meritorious service in both combat and non-combat service while in a position of great responsibility.