United States Military Decorations – A Primer

As both regular and new readers I’m sure know, one of my main goals behind Their Finest Hour is to make people aware of the amazing accomplishments of our men and women in uniform. Today’s 70th Anniversary post regarding General of the Army Douglas MacArthur’s Medal of Honor spoke also to the myriad of other decorations he received over the duration of a long and storied career as MacArthur’s heroism and contributions should, in my opinion, be viewed as a whole. It occurs to me though that not everybody has the context I do under which to view decorations below the Medal of Honor, and where and how they are used to recognize the efforts, exploits, and sacrifices of our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen.

What follows is a run-down of the current order of precedence for all US Military decorations from the Medal of Honor to the Purple Heart.

  • Medal of Honor
    • The Medal of Honor, established in 1862, is often erroneously called the Congressional Medal of Honor as it is awarded by the President “in the name of the Congress.” Congress has a limited role, if any, in the awarding of the Medal, although they can provide for exceptional (i.e. out of the ordinary awarding process using the military chain-of-command) awards by legislation, as in the case of Charles Lindbergh.
    • The Medal of Honor is awarded to “a person who…distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty—(1) while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States; (2) while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force; or (3) 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 Medal exists in three forms: one for the Army, one for the Air Force, and one for the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. Prior to establishment of the unique Air Force variant in 1965, Airmen received the Army version.
  • Service Crosses
    • The Service Crosses are awarded for acts of valor not worthy of the Medal of Honor with the same criteria for armed conflicts. There are three varieties, depending on branch of service.
    • The Navy Cross, established in 1917, for the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard.
    • The Distinguished Service Cross, established in 1918, for the Army.
    • The Air Force Cross, established in 1964, for the Air Force. Prior to 1964, Airmen received the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross for such acts.
  • Defense Distinguished Service Medal
    • The Defense Distinguished Service Medal is presented for exceptionally distinguished performance of duty contributing to national security or defense of the United States. It is the highest non-combat valor award, and is typically only presented to the most senior officers in positions of great joint-service responsibility. This award was established in 1970.
  • Homeland Security Distinguished Service Medal
    • This award was originally established in 1992 as the Transportation Distinguished Service Medal for the Coast Guard as members of that service were not eligible for the Defense Distinguished Service Medal since at the time the Coast Guard fell under the Department of Transportation, except in time of war. With the formation of the Department of Homeland Security post-9/11 and the transfer of the Coast Guard to that department, the award was so renamed. In 2011, the award’s criteria was changed to apply to any member of the armed forces, not just the Coast Guard.
    • The award is given for exceptionally distinguished service with regards to homeland security. As an example, the first instance of the award was given to then-Vice Admiral Thad Allen of the Coast Guard, who coordinated Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.
    • For members of the Coast Guard only, this award takes precedence over the Defense Distinguished Service Medal.
  • Branch Distinguished Service Medals
    • Each individual uniformed service has its own award. Like the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, they are awarded “to any person who, while serving in any capacity with the United States military, has distinguished himself or herself by exceptionally meritorious service to the Government in a duty of great responsibility.” They are non-combat valor awards.
    • The Army Distinguished Service Medal, established in 1918.
    • The Navy Distinguished Service Medal, established in 1919. This is also awarded to members of the United States Marine Corps.
    • The Coast Guard Distinguished Service Medal, established in 1949. Prior to 1949, Coast Guardsmen so recognized received the Navy Distinguished Service Medal.
    • The Air Force Distinguished Service Medal, established in 1960. Prior to establishment of the unique award, Airmen so recognized received the Army medal.
  • Silver Star
    • The Silver Star is awarded for acts of conspicuous gallantry not justifying either a Service Cross or the Medal of Honor. The award is common for all services, and has the same armed conflict criteria as the higher awards. The Silver Star was created in 1932 and was retroactively applied to equivalent valorous acts back to World War I.
  • Defense Superior Service Medal
    • This is a joint-service award presented to uniformed service members exhibiting “superior meritorious service in a position of significant responsibility.” It was established in 1976.
  • Legion of Merit
    • The Legion of Merit “is awarded for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services and achievements.” It was established in 1942.
    • The Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard also authorize the awarding of the Legion of Merit with the Valor Device to indicate an award for combat service. The Army and Air Force do not award the Legion of Merit for acts of valor.
  • Distinguished Flying Cross
    • The Distinguished Flying Cross is awarded to any service member “who distinguishes himself or herself in support of operations by ‘heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight, subsequent to November 11, 1918.'”
    • The Army only awards the Distinguished Flying Cross for acts of valor. The other services authorize use of the Valor Device to indicate awards for combat service to differentiate from awards for peacetime flight achievements.
  • Non-Combat Heroism Medals
    • These awards, one for each service branch, are “awarded to any person of the Armed Forces of the United States or of a friendly foreign nation who, while serving in any capacity with the [Armed Forces] of the United States, distinguished himself or herself by heroism not involving actual conflict with an enemy.” They require the recipient to have exhibited great courage at risk to self. The variants are:
    • The Soldier’s Medal, established in 1926 for the Army.
    • The Navy and Marine Corps Medal, established in 1942 for those services.
    • The Coast Guard Medal, established in 1949.
    • The Airman’s Medal, established in 1960.
  • Gold Lifesaving Medal
    • The Gold Lifesaving Medal is awarded to anyone (military or civilian) by the Coast Guard who rescues or attempts to rescue any other person from a “peril of water”: drowning, shipwreck, etc. The award requires that the rescuer be themselves at great risk of life. It is unusual for service members to be awarded this medal as the more prestigious non-combat heroism medals are usually bestowed. It was established in June of 1874.
  • Bronze Star Medal
    • The Bronze Star Medal is awarded to any service member who distinguishes themselves for meritorious or courageous achievement not involving aerial flight with the same armed conflict criteria as, and not justifying, any of the higher valor awards. When the Bronze Star Medal is awarded for courage and not just merit, the Valor Device is attached to the ribbon.
  • Purple Heart
    • The Purple Heart in its current form (since 1932) is awarded to any who have been wounded or killed in service with the Armed Forces since April 5, 1917.. Its forerunner, the Badge of Military Merit, was instituted by George Washington during the American Revolution in 1782.
If I have occasion to ever highlight any award of a decoration given further down the hierarchy, I’ll write another article describing the rest of the order of precedence. I hope you have found this informative and useful.
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