| July 4, 2020

Military Awards

In his spare time, Mason put together this essay on the evolution of how exceptional performance of US military duties has been recognized.
From the simple George Washington’s Badge of Military Merit only awarded to three men and brevet promotions, to today’s chart full of decorations, it’s a very interesting read.



America, fiercely against many European military traditions, did not have a formal system for any awards or decorations for decades after its forming. In fact, they were so anti-European, that the US Navy didn’t have the rank of admiral until the Civil War (nearly 100 years after the country’s founding) because it was too Imperial.

There were two Revolutionary War-era awards however. Both were awarded in exceptionally small numbers (three awards each) and neither were awarded beyond the end of the war.

The oldest, and first, American award was the Fidelity Medallion. It was awarded to the soldiers who captured British Major John Andre. Andre was famously the British point of contact for Benedict Arnold (a disaffected American general who turned traitor and gave Britain intelligence in exchange for a British generalcy). Only three men of the New York Militia received the award and it was never bestowed again.

Often referred to (incorrectly) as America’s oldest decoration is George Washington’s Badge of Military Merit. Also only ever awarded to three men, it was a badge made in the shape of a heart. The heart’s color was purple. Though never officially abolished, it was never awarded after 1783. The current Purple Heart award was modeled on the Badge of Military Merit and is the official successor decoration.

Interestingly, as well as the limited numbers both awards were given in, both were also only given to enlisted or non-commissioned men. This was in stark contrast to the awards and decorations of European armies in which only successful, high ranking officers would be so honored.

After the Revolutionary War the only system in routine use by the American military to reward performance were brevet promotions, only to officers. Brevet rank is an honorary, titular advancement to a higher rank without the pay and duties of the rank. A high honor for an officer, they were often bestowed for exemplary battlefield leadership or performance. Some officers were brevetted multiple times, particularly towards the end of the Civil War. For example, after Congress allowed brevet ranks to be given to officers of the United States Volunteers (USV), Ranald S. Mackenzie held the substantive rank of captain in the Regular Army, was a brevet brigadier general in the Regular Army, a substantive brigadier general in the USV, and a brevet major general in the USV.

During the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) a Certificate of Merit was created by the Army to recognize soldiers who performed gallantly. The same legislation also allowed brevet promotions for non-commissioned officers and privates.

The Certificate of Merit was discontinued after the war, but was later brought back.

It was not until the start of the Civil War in 1861 that the Medal of Honor was instituted, first as a Navy award and then an Army version in 1862. This is the oldest continuously awarded personal decoration of the US military.

As initially created, the Medal of Honor (MoH) was awarded only to enlisted members of the US Navy, US Marine Corps, and US Army. In 1863 the award criteria was expanded to include officers. The MoH was to recognize those who “shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action and other soldier-like qualities during the present insurrection.”

Throughout the Civil War, the Medal of Honor was the only military award for gallantry, though brevet rank was often given for bravery under fire as well. Battlefield leadership and meritorious service were recognized with brevet promotions.

After the Civil War, the US military retained the Medal of Honor as the only official decoration. The Army added the Certificate of Merit back into the system in 1876, since it had never officially been deauthorized by Congress.

By 1892, guidance from the Adjutant General was that the Medal of Honor was to recognize battlefield bravery while the Certificate of Merit would recognize meritorious service. Both could be awarded in peace or war time and there are examples of exemplary bravery (particularly in the US Navy) during peacetime being recognized with a MoH. These regulations remained until after World War I. By WWII the MoH was (and remains) strictly a combat bravery decoration. The Certificate of Merit became the Certificate of Merit Medal in 1905.

World War I and the years after it saw some of the biggest changes to the American awards and decorations system. The scale of the conflict saw a need for a more nuanced and tiered system of awards. Brevet promotions were done away with, and performance would be recognized with appropriate medals. Officers would still be eligible for promotions to ranks in the wartime-only National Army (which was made up of activated reserve components, conscripts, and volunteers) while holding lower “permanent” ranks in the Regular Army. In World War II (and until the all-volunteer Army in the early ‘70’s) the National Army was changed to Army of the United States (not to be confused with the Regular Army, which is officially the United States Army). .

The first change was a Wound Ribbon that the Army issued to those wounded in combat. Starting 6 Sept 1917 and only issued until 12 October 1917, the ribbon was replaced in 1918 with the Wound Chevron. This was a gold metallic thread chevron (point down) worn on the lower edge of the soldier’s right sleeve. It is very similar in appearance to the overseas service chevrons worn on the left sleeve in the same position.

Combat bravery during WWI was still recognized at the highest level with a Medal of Honor. In 1918, the Distinguished Service Cross (for the Army) and the Navy Cross were added as second-level awards for gallantry in action. The third-level award for combat bravery was the Silver Citation Star, which was a small silver star attached to the WWI Victory Medal.

The Silver Citation Star is the same physical silver star that would replace five bronze stars on later campaign and service medals. The WWI Victory Medal was the only award authorized silver citation stars, and there was no provision for condensing five or more bronze stars (to recognize campaign participation) into a silver star as with subsequent campaign and service medals.

The Distinguished Service Medals were created in 1918 for the Army and 1919 for the Navy to recognize exceptionally meritorious service from a position of high responsibility. The DSM replaced the Certificate of Merit Medal. Persons who had received the older award could exchange it for a DSM, though in 1934 Congress allowed people to exchange their Certificate of Merit Medal (or one already converted to a DSM) for a Distinguished Service Cross.

During the 1920’s, the Soldier’s Medal was created for non-combat individual bravery. Later, in 1942, the Navy and Marine Corps Medal was created for the same purpose for those in the naval arms. The Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) was created in 1926 (retroactive to 1918) to recognize “heroism or extraordinary achievement” in aerial flight.

The interbellum years also saw some additions and changes. The Purple Heart Medal was created in 1932, replacing earlier Wound Chevrons and the Army Wound Ribbon. Personnel who had received either of the latter could petition to have the award converted to a Purple Heart. The Purple Heart remains an award for those who are injured by enemy action during combat.

Also in 1932, the silver citation star was changed to its own medal. The Silver Star medal became the US’s third-level combat bravery award. Personnel who had received a citation star could petition to have it converted to a Silver Star.

In the late 30’s, the Medal of Honor, which had on occasion been awarded for non-combat (and even non-wartime) bravery had its award criteria restricted only to wartime bravery in action.
The Second World War saw some more additions to the American awards and decorations system, again reflecting the scale of the conflict and the numbers of men and women involved. The Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, Air Medal, and Commendation Medals were created during World War II.

The Legion of Merit is given for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services and achievements, most often to those of very senior rank. The Bronze Star was to serve as the fourth-level combat bravery decoration (behind the Silver Star), when awarded with “V” valor device, or as a meritorious service award when in a combat environment, awarded without a “V”. The Air Medal serves as the second-level aerial bravery award, for acts not rising to the level befitting a Distinguished Flying Cross (though aircrew can receive any of the other combat bravery awards as well).

During World War II the “modern” system of awards was largely taking shape. With the exception of the Air Force and Coast Guard creating their own versions of some of these medals, most individual awards given today would be recognizable to a soldier from the Second World War. The largest awards added in the latter half of the 20th Century would be the Meritorious Service Medal (ranking above a Commendation Medal) and the Achievement Medal (ranking below a Commendation Medal). There are also several Department of Defense-level awards that largely mirror their service-specific counterparts, but are awarded by the DoD for those operating in joint environments.

This table can help to understand how things have shifted over the years.

Civil War Pre-WWI WWI WWII Post-WWII
Highest Award for Combat Valor Medal of Honor Medal of Honor Medal of Honor Medal of Honor Medal of Honor
Second-level award for Combat Bravery Brevet Promotion Certificate of Merit Medal Distinguished Service Cross or Navy Cross Distinguished Service Cross or Navy Cross Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross, or Air Force Cross
Highest Award for Meritorious Service Brevet Promotion Certificate of Merit Medal or Brevet Promotion Distinguished Service Medal Distinguished Service Medal Distinguished Service Medal
Third-level Combat Bravery Award Silver Citation Star Silver Star Silver Star
Non-combat bravery Medal of Honor Medal of Honor Medal of Honor Soldier’s Medal Soldier’s Medal, Navy and Marine Corps Medal, or Airman’s Medal
Second-level Meritorious Service Legion of Merit Legion of Merit
Fourth-level Combat Bravery Award Bronze Star Medal w/ “V” Bronze Star Medal w/ “V”
Meritorious Service in a Combat Environment Bronze Star Medal Bronze Star Medal


As one looks at medals awarded in the past, as I often do, you’ll come across awards for things that at the time rated high awards, but in succeeding conflicts might rate a lower award. This happened because at the time, there was no lesser award. For example, prior to WWI, any act of uncommon bravery (on the field of battle or off) was often rewarded with a Medal of Honor. Once additional awards had been created, the acts needed for awards such as the MoH increasingly rose.

Thanks, Mason.

Category: Bravo Zulu, Guest Post, Military issues

Comments (13)

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  1. Valor Friday : This ain't Hell, but you can see it from here | July 10, 2020
  1. 2banana says:

    The National Defense Service Medal was authorized so basic training graduates could have some bling…except for small windows of “peace.”

  2. Sapper3307 says:

    So that bronze star for supporting something while doing nothing needs to go away.
    Perhaps a V devise on the ASR.

  3. 5th/77th FA says:

    “…in his spare time (or in other words, in addition to his other duties)” Thus endeth the lesson.

    Tanks Mason for the refresher course. Been ‘pert near 50 years since I had to know and keep up with this. A very young, recent graduate of the Hudson River School for Wayward Boys, during the 1846 unpleasantness with Mexico, made very rapid advancement in Brevet Rank due to his Bravery under fire. Particularly with his handling of his Artillery piece. I speak, of course, of “Blue Fire” Thomas “Tom Fool” Jonathan Jackson.

  4. aGrimm says:

    Nice write-up Mason; thanks.

    Some time back, I was struck by side-by-side photos of a WWI general and a modern day general. The WWI general had just a couple of ribbons on his chest, whereas the modern day general had row upon row of them down to his fat belly button. We have definitely lost the Revolutionary War mentality that rejected the imperiousness of European military. Today’s rack has become a “look at how great I am” display.

    The “combat V” thing has confused me. I got one on my NAM. Initially I thought it meant valor, but now I think it just means having been given the award while in combat. If you have thoughts or clarification on this, I would be interested.

    • AW1Ed says:

      NORK GOs unavailable for comment.

      nork go medals

    • Mason says:

      The Army/AF refer to the “V” as Valor Device. The purpose is to denote that the award was for combat valor.

      The naval arms refer to it as the Combat Distinguishing Device or Combat “V”. It can be awarded for both combat valor as well as for participation in an active combat zone.

      DoD has now complicated things even more with the “V”, “C”, and “R” devices for medals.

      Ever want to see how many pieces of flair we give out now, look up the official photos for the service-level senior enlisted advisors. In the 60’s and 70’s they were three war veterans with two or three rows of ribbons. Now, they have 12 rows. The AF is probably the worst offender since we seem to have a ribbon or medal for anything and everything.

      • aGrimm says:

        “The naval arms refer to it as the Combat Distinguishing Device or Combat “V”. It can be awarded for both combat valor as well as for participation in an active combat zone.”

        Not having pulled any bodies out from under withering fire, I’m interpreting mine as a participation trophy.

    • Claw says:

      One Thought on the “combat V” thing is to never forget that the 1st SEAC got it for his Bronze Star by standing in for the front gate guard (for 15 minutes) to the III Corps Headquarters while the guard ran and got evening chow during his shift./s