Valor Friday

| November 17, 2023 | 12 Comments

Mount Rushmore. (Reuters/National Parks Service)

While having been a military veteran is not a requirement to become President of the United States, military service is a trait very commonly found in Presidents. It was more common in the earlier days of the republic. From George Washington to Theodore Roosevelt (whose presidency ended in 1909) we had only five of the 26 presidents that had never worn a uniform. Since then, 10 of the 20 presidents have been veterans.

We’ve had 46 Presidents of the United States, and 31 of them were veterans. Several presidents, unsurprisingly, had risen to the highest ranks before becoming our head of state. Washington was famously commander-in-chief of American forces during the Revolutionary War. At the time, that post came with the rank of major general. In the centuries since, he’s been advanced on the retired list (posthumously), so as to perpetually outrank all subsequent officers. Washington’s rank now is General of the Armies, which is nominally a six-star rank, as it sits above General of the Army (the five-star rank held by Eisenhower, MacArthur, and others during and shortly after WWII).

General of the Armies is also the highest military rank held (posthumously) by President Ulysses S Grant. The 18th President, similarly to Washington, had propelled himself to the presidency after successfully leading the US federal government to victory in the Civil War.

Both Washington and Grant are the only two presidents to have previously served as the Commanding General of the United States Army. Today we call the post Chief of Staff of the United States Army. Prior to his election in 1952, General of the Army Eisenhower was Chief of Staff of the US Army, the final president to have commanded a branch of the US military.

Only one veteran president never held a commission. Buchanan, thus far, is the only president to have been a mere private during his time in uniform. Buchanan served in the Pennsylvania Militia during the War of 1812. He was the final president who was a veteran of that conflict.

You might be surprised to know that the first US President who was a naval veteran was John F Kennedy. He started a trend, as five of the next six presidents were similarly Navy vets. So far, George W Bush is the only president to have seen service in the Air Force (as a member of the TX Air National Guard).

The highest rank held by a president in the naval service is commander, and George W Bush is the highest ranking Air Force president at the rank of first lieutenant. To date, no Marines, Coast Guardsmen, or Space Force Guardians have become president.

The last combat veteran president was George H.W. Bush, who earned a Distinguished Flying Cross during World War II. A torpedo bomber pilot, he was the sole survivor of his flight. He survived being shot down over Wake Island when his two crewmen died. Several of his wingmen survived their being shot down, only to be captured, killed, and cannibalized by the enemy.

On the topic of awards and decorations, several presidents have earned high honors during their military service. Theodore Roosevelt was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, the sole president to hold that award, for actions in the Spanish-American War. His son Ted also posthumously earned that award for actions on D-Day at the Battle of Normandy, becoming one of only two father-son pairs of MoH recipients.

Other presidents with gallantry decorations include Lyndon Johnson and John Kennedy. Johnson famously was awarded a Silver Star (the third highest award for combat gallantry) during WWII. He was a sitting Congressman and a lieutenant commander in the Navy flying in the South Pacific aboard a US Army Air Forces B-26 bomber. As an observer, when the flight came under attack, the plane Johnson was on had to turn around. According to his award citation, “he evidenced marked coolness in spite of the hazards involved.” As a passenger on a plane. There are many accounts that say that Johnson’s plane turned back well before the enemy arrived, which would mean he got a valor decoration simply for taking a ride in an aircraft in-theater (other high ranking officers have received similar awards for the same act).

Lieutenant John Kennedy, skipper of PT-109 in the Pacific Theater during WWII earned the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, the highest non-combat award for individual bravery. Considered the non-combat equivalent of the Navy Cross, Kennedy received the medal after his ship sank. He spent hours swimming in the dark to get his crewmen to safety and securing supplies for their survival.

Prior to World War I, there was not a comprehensive system of awards and decorations for the US military like we’re used to today. That means that in conflicts before the Great War, other accolades were given, particularly to officers for distinguished service or meritorious performance in leading large-scale combat operations.

The Continental Congress, before the founding of the United States itself, gave a distinction called Thanks of Congress. While not explicitly a military-only award, in practice it was. The Thanks was accompanied by a specially minted gold medallion.

The US Congress adopted the practice, with the peak for awards coming in the Civil War, and slowly being replaced by the military medals we still award. Thanks of Congress is a joint resolution from both Houses of Congress, and the Congressional Gold Medal (and related inferior, though far less often awarded, Silver Medal) have become separate awards. They are jointly considered the highest honor awarded by Congress, and rank with the Presidential Medal of Freedom (awarded by the Executive Branch) as the nation’s highest civilian honors.

George Washington was the first President to receive the Thanks of Congress (and resultant Gold Medal). Andrew Jackson received it for his defense of New Orleans during the War of 1812. William Henry Harrison received it for winning the Battle of the Thames during the same war. Zachary Taylor received it thrice!

Taylor is the only man to have received the Thanks of Congress three times. All three awards were for service in the Mexican-American War. The first two were for “distinguished” and “meritorious” achievements respectively. The third award was specifically for valor at the Battle of Buena Vista. As this award pre-dates the Medal of Honor, and comes with a similar level of prestige, one would not be remiss in listing it as a comparable honor.

Ulysses Grant received the Thanks of Congress and Congressional Gold Medal (along with the men under his command, a common feature of such awards at the time) for victories during the Civil War. While his citation notes gallantry, this award would specifically not be comparable to the Medal of Honor, as the MoH was being awarded for exceptional combat heroism at the time.

Presidents Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan received Congressional Gold Medals for a lifetime of public service, Truman’s award was posthumous. Both Ford and Reagan shared their awards with their wives Betty and Nancy, respectively.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom, which co-ranks as the highest civil honor of the US government, has also been earned by several presidents. John Kennedy, who created the honor, was the first presidential recipient when given the honor posthumously by Lyndon Johnson.

Johnson in turn received the Medal of Freedom from Carter, Reagan from Bush The Elder, Carter and Ford from Clinton, and George H.W. Bush and Clinton from Obama. Biden received the Medal of Freedom from Obama, when he was Vice President, and has since ascended to the presidency.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom can be awarded “with Distinction”, which is a higher grade of the award. Reagan and Biden are the only two Presidents to have been given the extra prestige.

Seven Presidents were veterans of World War II (Eisenhower, Kennedy, L Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush Sr). Carter arguably might qualify as a WWII veteran as he was at the US Naval Academy during the war and graduated just after the end of the conflict. None have been a veteran of any more recent conflict.

Only two (Truman and Eisenhower) saw active service during the First World War, though Eisenhower’s service was all stateside. Eisenhower was the only veteran of both World Wars to become President. This wasn’t for lack of trying. Truman, an Army Reserve officer, had volunteered for active service during the Second World War, but was denied (partially due to his age but mostly because he was a sitting Senator who supported Roosevelt’s war policy).

Seven Presidents were also veterans of the Civil War (A Johnson, Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Harrison, and McKinley). Of those, only McKinley did not wear a general’s stars, having been a captain. Only five Presidents were veterans of the Revolutionary War (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Jackson).
With all of this in mind, it’s Theodore Roosevelt that I say is clearly the most decorated American President in history. I mentioned he’d received the Medal of Honor, but didn’t detail why.

Before he was the President, the Bull Moose, and the Trust Buster, Roosevelt lived a life of adventure. A truly remarkable man, by sheer force of will and determination, he overcame debilitating (and untreatable) asthma as a child. From there he would eventually become the youngest President when he assumed the office upon the assassination of William McKinley (in whose administration Roosevelt was Vice President) at the age of 42.

When he wasn’t on elaborate trophy hunting expeditions, Roosevelt served in the NY State Assembly (first elected there when he was only 24), was Commissioner of the US Civil Service Commission, President of the NYC Board of Police Commissioners, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and Governor of New York.

When the US went to war with Spain, Roosevelt was already well connected politically. When the war began, he was in Washington D.C. as Assistant SECNAV. He resigned from office and, with the help of Colonel Leonard Wood, raised the First US Volunteer Cavalry Regiment. You might remember Wood as the career Army doctor who, as a young contract assistant surgeon (i.e. a civilian), earned the Medal of Honor for actions in the Indian Wars. He would later become Chief of Staff of the US Army, and if not for his prior close affiliation with Roosevelt, would have led the American Expeditionary Force during WWI.

Better known as The Rough Riders, the First US Volunteer Cavalry was made up largely of upper crust gentlemen. They fell under the command of General Joseph Wheeler (who had been a Confederate general during the Civil War) when they deployed to Cuba. Colonel Wood would assume higher command, which left the regiment under the command of Colonel Roosevelt.

Roosevelt earned the Medal of Honor for leading the Rough Riders in their charge up San Juan Hill. The regiment was supporting regular Army troops when Roosevelt pressed the charge up the hill without direct orders. Roosevelt was the only man mounted on a horse, which he used to ride from position to position at the fore of the American advance. Before they crested the hill, he was forced to ascend on foot when his steed became entangled in barbed wire.

A major victory for Roosevelt, which he called “the great day of my life” and “my crowded hour”, was costly for his men. Two hundred lie dead and a thousand wounded. Upon his return to civilian life a month later, he preferred to be called “The Colonel” or “Colonel Roosevelt.”

Roosevelt wouldn’t be awarded the Medal of Honor until 2001, more than 100 years after the actions for which it was made. He was recommended for it at the time, but his unrepentant showboating to the press caused Army brass to deny the honor. His own lobbying for the award to the War Department didn’t help him at all.

He served as Vice President for only a few months when he became President in 1901. He stood for re-election, and won, in 1904. Though still young and loving being President, he felt that a limited number of terms was a good protection against dictatorship, so left office in 1909. Interestingly, his distant cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, would not be encumbered by such concerns. FDR’s record four consecutive election victories would result in the 22nd Amendment being passed to limit the number of terms for a President.

Roosevelt’s presidency was marked by his trust busting, expansion of conservation efforts (such as national parks), and the sailing of the Great White Fleet to flex American naval power. In 1906 Roosevelt received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to broker an end to the Russo-Japanese War. He was the first American to receive a Nobel Prize.

Other Presidents to have received the Nobel Peace Prize are Wilson (for the ill-fated League of Nations), Carter (in 2002 for mostly his post-presidential actions), and Obama (for showing up to work).

In 1912, while out campaigning for another try at President, Roosevelt was shot at close range in the chest. The would-be assassin’s bullet went through Roosevelt’s steel eyeglass case, through a 50-page speech he was about to give, and lodged in his chest. His attacker was soon captured, and nearly killed by the mob, but Roosevelt ordered that he not be harmed.

Roosevelt, an experienced hunter and outdoorsman, concluded that because he hadn’t coughed blood, that the bullet hadn’t hit his lung. He refused to be transported to the hospital. Instead, he gave a fiery 90 minute speech before accepting treatment. He started the speech by saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot, but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.”

When the US entered World War I, Roosevelt offered to raise troops for the war effort. Though Congress authorized him to build four divisions, Wilson (a staunch political opponent of Roosevelt) declined the request. Wilson made it clear he would not send Roosevelt or his men to France to join the war, so Roosevelt abandoned the effort.

In 1919 Roosevelt died in his sleep at the age of 60. His son Archibald wired to the other children, “The old lion is dead.” Vice President Thomas Marshall said, “Death had to take Roosevelt sleeping, for if he had been awake, there would have been a fight.”

Category: Historical, Medal of Honor, Valor, We Remember

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
BlueCord Dad

In regards to Bush Senior, he was shot down over Chichijima. His first combat sortie was at Wale Island.


Carter (in 2002 for mostly his post-presidential actions), and Obama (for showing up to work).

Carter’s a good man that never should’ve occupied the Oval Office. I absolutely disagree with him politically, but you’d be hard pressed to find a better humanitarian. And Obama. Got his award for being “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.” Go ahead, call me a racist. Then prove me wrong.

Old tanker

You’re not wrong, His entire campaign was nothing but smoke and mirrors, especially the word “change”. In fact as far as I know he got the award for the color of his skin and winning the election, nothing more. I don’t care what his skin color is, I only care what he does in it and he was very bad for the country. His successor is even worse.


He’s got his arm up his successor’s ass all the way to the shoulder, making his mouth move. The muppet in chief.

USMC Steve

Cannot agree. Jackoff Jimmah is a true socialist democrat who has repeatedly demonstrated his hatred and disdain of anything republican or conservative. There is also an interesting story of how he actually got tossed out of the Navy. Dude was an empty suit. For Obama it was an affirmative action award.


Pretty sure I said I didn’t like his politics. Yup, there it is.


Carter earns respect for his work with and for Habitat For Humanity. They build -good- if humble homes, and the recipients work for them.

When Hurricane Andrew trashed south Florida, the Habitat homes were often the only structures in a neighborhood still standing.


Reportedly the Secret Service agents on his detail found him very cold & difficult. He did not want the agents talking to him at all. Saying simple greetings like ‘Good morning, Mr. President’ or ‘Hello, Mr. President’ weren’t tolerated.

Jimmy, getting on the Russian collusion train, and claiming Trump was an illegitimate president really got my bp up.

Green Thumb

The Fidelity Medallion became The Badge of Military Merit which became the Purple Heart in 1932 (for meritorious service and fidelity as well – changed to wound only in 1942).

Blackjack Pershing lobbied Congress to create the DSC and DSM in WWI (all we had was the MOH and the new WR listed below). He saw the other allied and axis armies had a award system. We did not.

The Wound Ribbon in 1917 became the Wound Chevron a year later.

Bored this morning.

Green Thumb

Great read.


Interesting history lesson all around. From a “Father of The Country” to a Mother Phuquing Pervert. A Bull Moose to a Bull Shitter. A not so honest Abe to one who honestly told us to Beware. The Buck stops here to Give me the bucks…or at least 10% of them. War Heroes to War Criminals.

Being a Vet is not a requirement to become President, but maybe it should be. As Commander in Chief might not be a bad idea to have someone that is going to send our young’uns into harm’s way should have been a young’un that was sent into harm’s way. Rich man’s war, poor man’s fight anyone? YMMV

Some of these “Awards”?… *spits*

Thanks, Mason