The Beginning of Military Awards can be traced to the ancient Egyptians and the Greeks, but the Roman Legions were the first to organize an award system honoring their soldiers for bravery and service. Once recognized, Roman soldiers wore these decorations in battle, parades, and displayed them in their homes after their military service. If an entire Roman legion was cited for valor, a decoration was added to the Legion’s eagle standard.
Merits, Deeds, and Heroic Actions
Two thousand years ago, the Greek historian Polybius wrote: “If there was any fight, and some soldiers distinguish themselves by bravery, the legion commander would bring his troops together and call forward those to be decorated. The Roman commander would call out the merits, deeds, and heroic actions for which the Roman soldier was to be decorated and present the legionnaire with a necklace, armbands, or set of disks. During the ceremony, the commander would often tie the item to Legionnaire’s armor.” (Just as today’s commander pins a military medal on the chest of a marine.)
Awards for Bravery
During the time of the Roman Empire, the Roman army established a series of decorations for military bravery. The most common decoration for bravery was a golden circle necklet called Torques. Torques were worn around the necks of Celtic Warriors, and their award originally represented the defeat of an enemy in single combat. Over time the Torques became an award for bravery. The second type of valor award for all ranks were embossed or plain armbands called Armillae. Another highly coveted award was an embossed disc called a Phalerae, which were sometimes awarded in sets and worn on a leather harness over the legionnaire’s armor. These discs were presented in bronze, silver, and gold, and there was no limit to the number a soldier could be awarded.
Above these three awards were various crowns such as the Corona Aurea (Golden Crown) presented to Centurions for victorious personal combat and the Corona Vallaris (Fortification) crown awarded to the first legionaries or centurion over the walls of an enemy fortification. A very high honor was the Corona Civia, a crown of Oak leaves for saving the life of a fellow Roman citizen during battle. Eventually, the Corona Civia allowed recipients to serve as Senators in the Roman Senate. The one distinction between Roman army awards and today is the Roman’s only decorated living soldiers. There were no posthumous honors for the fallen.
The symbols from the Roman standard pictured can be seen in the decorations and awards of Napoleon, United States Army insignia as early as 1812, and the Third Reich, to name a few. So as we begin the history of United States decorations and awards, it is clear our early designs of the eagle, lightning, victory wreaths of laurel, and oak came from ancient Roman Legions.
After the fall of Rome, the custom of awarding medals for military service probably owes its origin to the badges used within the armies of England after the decline of armor and before the introduction of distinctive uniforms. The badges themselves, of course, grew out of the coats of arms, which emblazon retainer’s liveries. There are several instances of record where commanders rewarded men on the battlefield by giving them badges struck in some valuable metal or perhaps embossed with precious stones. Heroes, who were decorated in this way, remove the ordinary metal insignia from their coats or hats and, instead, would wear the much prize emblem. This was probably the beginning of medal granting and wearing as it is in the Armed Forces of today.
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Many veterans and their families are unsure of which military medals they were awarded and often for good reasons. Twenty-five, thirty, even fifty years after military service, it is often difficult to remember or identify the awards a veteran may have earned the right to wear or display. Thousands of veterans have been heard to say, “I don’t want any awards I’m not authorized, but I want everything I am authorized.” So the question is, “What are the medals authorized the veteran for his military service during each conflict?”
There are several reasons besides the passage of time that veterans are not always sure of their military awards. At the end of World War II, many campaign medals had not yet been struck and were only issued as ribbons due to the restriction on brass and other metals for the war effort. Many unit awards had not yet been authorized, and on the whole, most soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen were more interested in going home than they were in their military records. Other changes such as Congress’ decision in the 1947s to authorize a Bronze Star Medal for meritorious service to all recipients of the Combat Infantryman and Combat Medical Badge was not well known. Many veterans never realized that they had earned a Bronze Star Medal. Perhaps the most striking example is the recently-approved Republic of Korea War Service Medal. The Republic of Korea offered the medal to all U.S. Korean War veterans, but our government did not accept it until 1999. In other cases, veterans came home and stuffed their medals and awards into a cigar box, which usually found its way into the hands of children, and these magnificent symbols of valor and service from a grateful nation disappeared over time.
Today there is a wonderfully renewed interest in wearing and displaying United States military medals, both to honor veterans’ patriotic service and to display a family’s pride in military service. World War II, Korea, and Vietnam veterans now wear their medals at formal social and patriotic events, and a display of military medals and insignia are often in the family home place of honor.
As mentioned earlier, military medals are divided into two categories: Decorations awarded for valor or meritorious service and Campaign and Service medals awarded for a particular service or event. Additionally, there are Unit Awards, which are for unit valor and meritorious service and ribbon-only awards presented for completing specialized training or recognizing specific service.
Decorations are individual awards which are of such singular significance that most veterans and their family will remember when such awards have been presented. Decorations are noted on a veteran’s official discharge papers (called a DD Form 214) as well as published in official unit orders. However, there are exceptions, such as the Bronze Star Medal issued for meritorious service after World War II and in some cases Purple Heart medals that were never officially presented. Someone unsure if they received a decoration can request the National Records Center in St. Louis or other veterans’ records holding areas to check their records. Home of Heroes lists all Medal of Honor, Service Crosses, and most Silver Star awardees. Bronze Star, Air Medal, Purple Heart, Commendation and Achievement medals are announced in unit orders which are usually found in the individual’s military service record.
Campaign and service medals, unit awards, and ribbon-only awards are more clearly identifiable. The Army, for example, has a campaign register which provides a clear indication of which campaign medals, unit awards, campaign stars, and foreign unit awards are authorized a particular unit during certain periods of time. To aid in identifying the campaign medals authorized veterans of different conflicts and to show how they can be displayed, United States and Allied campaign medals authorized since World War II are summarized below Exact criteria for each medal and the campaigns associated with it are shown in detail on the internet or complete in Military Medals of the United States.
World War II
World War II saw Good Conduct Medals for all four services. The Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard had already established Good Conduct Medals while the Army (which included the Army Air Force) established a Good Conduct Medal in 1941.
World War II Campaign Medals
World War II saw Good Conduct Medals available to all four services. The Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard had already established Good Conduct Medals while the Army (which included the Army Air Force) established a Good Conduct Medal in 1941. The American Defense Service Medal was authorized for the period of national emergency before 7 December 1941. After America declared war, the conflict was divided into (1) the American theater, (2) the European, African, Middle Eastern theater, and the (3) Asiatic Pacific Theater. Examples of the medals awarded are shown.
Korean Campaign Medals 1950-1954
The Armed Forces approved acceptance of the ROK War Service Medal in Oct. 1999 for all Korean War Veterans. The Korea Defense Service Medal for 30 days service in Korea after 27 July 1954 was approved in 2003.
The Navy and Marine Corps changed the ribbon drape of their Good Conduct Medals. Although the Air Force became a separate service in 1947, it still used the Army Good Conduct Medal during the Korean War and until 1 June 1963, which the Air Force Good Conduct Medal was authorized.
Vietnam Campaign Medals 1965-1973
Cold War 1947-1991
Millions of Americans served in the Armed Forces during the so-called Cold War, often in dangerous and difficult places. Often the current Good Conduct Medals of the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard were all they were authorized.
- Southwest Asia, Bosnia/Kosovo, Afghanistan & Iraq Campaign Medals
- Southwest Asia Service Medal 1991-1995
- Bosnia/Kosovo Campaign Medal 1999-2013
- Afghanistan Campaign Medal 2001-To a date To Be Determined
- Iraq Campaign Medal 2003-2011
- Inherent Resolve Campaign Medal 2014-To a date To Be Determined
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