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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.

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