Types of Military Awards


Military awards are issued to acknowledge and recognize achievements made by service members. The U.S. Marine Corps, Army, Navy, Coast Guard and Air Force all issue military awards. Ribbons and medals are awards that are worn on a service member's uniform. Understanding the award types can help both civilians and military personnel to recognize the achievements a service member has made in service to his country.

Military Awards Given by the President

  • The Medal of Honor is the highest U.S. military award. Recipients must set themselves apart from their peers by acting with "gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of their life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States." Prisoners of war who perform valiantly under extreme duress, including military personnel who die or who suffer wounds so grave that they could die during wartime or conflict, are eligible to receive the award. George Washington established both the Medal of Honor and the Purple Heart on August 7, 1782.

Secretary of Defense Military Awards

  • The Defense Distinguished Service Medal is awarded to military persons who demonstrate exceptionally distinguished performance that contributes to the security of the nation during times of peace. This award is the highest peacetime award given by the Secretary of Defense. Senior military officials (i.e., joint chiefs of staff and deputy commanders) who contribute to national security by performing uncommon works---like creating a system that alerts government officials to potential terrorist's threats---are typical recipients of the award.

    Service members who, after February 6, 1976, render superior meritorious service in a role that requires significant responsibility under extremely unusual circumstances are eligible to receive the Defense Superior Service Medal. Only senior military persons like the joint chiefs of staff or chairmen of the joint chiefs of staff are authorized to recommend service members for the award.

    Joint Service Achievement medals are awarded to members of the armed forces below the rank of O-6 who "distinguish themselves by outstanding performance of duty and meritorious achievement."

Military Awards Given to Foreign Service Persons

  • Members of foreign ally militaries who demonstrate "exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services and achievements" are eligible to receive the Legion of Merit award. Created on July 20, 1942, by the 77th Congress of the United States, the award is the first military decoration presented to citizens of a foreign nation.

Military Awards for Heroism

  • The Distinguished Flying Cross award is given to military personnel who demonstrate extraordinary achievement while conducting aerial flight missions against an enemy. Awards must be given for a single act of heroism that sets the military person apart from his peers. Initially created by the Air Force, a member of any branch of the U.S. armed forces is eligible to receive the award.

    In response to military acts of heroism demonstrated during World War II, Theodore Roosevelt established the Bronze Star on February 4, 1944. Award recipients must demonstrate exceptional heroism during wartime that does not involve an aerial mission to receive the award.

    U.S. Army personnel who perform with great courage in the face of an enemy during wartime combat are eligible to receive a Silver Star. Congress created the award on July 9, 1918. Early recipients included Army personnel who had served with uncommon courage in the Spanish-American War.

    The Navy Cross is another award given to military members who perform extraordinary acts of heroism in the "face of great danger" during wartime.

Peacetime Military Awards

  • The Defense Meritorious Award is presented to senior service members who provide meritorious service as part of a joint military effort. Jimmy Carter established the award on November 3, 1977.

    Military members who perform acts of distinguished and outstanding meritorious service provided during peacetime are also eligible to receive the Meritorious Service Medal. Comparable to the wartime Bronze Star, the Meritorious Service Medal was established on November 8, 1968 by Lyndon Johnson.

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