Military medals are more complex than you might think. The highest ranking military medals are awarded for valor and heroism, honoring those who serve in combat and perform above and beyond the call of duty.
The three highest-ranking military medals are awarded for exceptional service on the battlefield, while lower ranking (but still quite important) medals are bestowed for both combat and non-combat exceptionalism, depending on the medal and the branch of service awarding it.
There are many different types of military medals. Some are presented to officers only, some are presented to enlisted members only, and some are presented on the basis of performance and/or bravery. What follows is a list of some of the highest ranking military medals awarded for the highest acts of service–exceptional performance in combat above the call of duty.
Awards for valor and heroism get top priority whether presented to the recipient, or posthumously to the recipient’s family.
A Brief History Of Military Medals
On a historic, and world-wide scale, military decorations have been used since the days of antiquity. Egypt had its Order of the Golden Collar, the Roman legions used decorations to honor their elite fighters, and Sweden has the distinction of having quite possibly the oldest military decorations that are still employed to this day.
The Swedish “For Valour in the Field” and “For Valour at Sea” awards were originally created in the late 1700s by King Gustav of Sweden.
Other very old military awards still used today include the Austro-Hungarian Honour Medal for Bravery, created in 1789, by Emperor Joseph II. Another good example is the Poland War Order of Military Valour, presented for the first time in 1792.
On American soil, the Badge of Military Merit was created by General George Washington in 1782, created to honor enlisted soldiers who performed a “singularly meritorious action.”
Circa 1932 the Badge of Military Merit evolved into the Purple Heart, meant to honor the same bravery as the Badge of Military Merit. But the Purple Heart was also intended (at the time) to honor the bicentennial of George Washington’s birthday.
Awards And Decorations
It’s important to note that what people sometimes think of as military medals are actually classified into two separate categories known as “awards and decorations.” The basic difference is that an award can be presented to an individual soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, or members of the Coast Guard. But they can also be presented to a full unit.
By comparison, a decoration can only be presented to an individual and is presented for a specific purpose and/or motivated by a specific incident. The military medals discussed here are decorations, not awards.
The Medal of Honor
The Medal of Honor is the highest military honor presented for valor. It is also the only military award that is congressionally approved for presentation by the President.
Criteria for receiving this award usually involves going above and beyond the call of duty while “engaged in action against an enemy of the United States.”
The Medal of Honor actually comes in three different versions: the U.S. Army version, the Air Force version, and the version for the Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps. The first Medal of Honor was created for the U.S. Navy in 1861. The U.S. Army created its own Medal of Honor the following year. The Air Force version of the Medal of Honor was designed in 1963.
Note: The Medal of Honor is sometimes incorrectly referred to as “The Congressional Medal Of Honor.” This extended name can be attributed to the Congressional Medal Of Honor Society, a nonprofit group chartered by Congress and comprised of Medal Of Honor recipients.
The Distinguished Service Cross, the Navy Cross and the Air Force Cross
Service Crosses are the second-highest military medal awarded for valor. Like the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) has evolved into a medal presented for valor to qualifying service members from any branch of the U.S. military. The Distinguished Service Cross was first awarded by the Army in 1918.
The Navy created its own version in 1919 but the original Navy Cross was awarded for “distinguished service” and not just exceptional performance in combat. Later, the U.S. Congress redesignated the Navy Cross as a medal to be awarded for bravery in combat only, and elevated the medal’s status to a position second only to the Medal Of Honor.
Navy Cross medals are awarded to members of the Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps.
The Air Force Cross was created for that branch of service in 1960, filling the purpose that was filled by the original Distinguished Service Cross. Like the Navy, Air Force officials wanted a service-specific version of the DSC to honor their own for bravery in combat.
The Silver Star
The Silver Star is the third-highest military medal awarded specifically for bravery and exceptional service under fire. It was created in 1918. It was known first as the Citation Star. Around 1932 the Citation Star was redesignated and became the medal we know today.
The Silver Star shares some criteria in common with the Medal Of Honor. Not just anyone can present a Silver Star award; the ceremony must be presided over by a “commander-in-theater” who is at least a three-star general.
Among those who have earned the Silver Star is Colonel David “Hack” Hackworth who stands out from the rest. Hackworth earned a whopping 10 Silver Stars during his military career.
Distinguished Flying Cross
Believe it or not, the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) was created in the early 1900s by and first awarded to the U.S. Army. This military medal is awarded for heroism or extraordinary achievement related to flight and its first recipient was none other than Charles Lindbergh.
Unlike the medals awarded above, combat is not the only reason the DFC was created. It could be awarded for achievements in flight as well as bravery. Amelia Earhart is one such Distinguished Flying Cross recipient who earned her medal through achievement rather than on the battlefield.
The Bronze Star
The Bronze Star has the distinction of being an award for heroism or achievement, offered to both U.S. troops and qualifying members of foreign military organizations. The Bronze Star was created in 1944 and can be presented for both valor and/or meritorious service.
Similar to the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star is not a combat-specific award and can be presented for achievement or meritorious service as well as combat performance above the call of duty.
The Purple Heart
This military medal awarded for wounds or loss of life in combat “as the result of an act of any opposing force” has its origins in the American Revolution. Originally created and presented as the Badge of Military Merit initiated by George Washington in 1782, the Purple Heart was created in 1932 based on Washington’s design and intent.
It has remained an important recognition of military service in combat and is awarded for meeting a specific set of criteria. This makes the Purple Heart different from other military medals since the service member must be recommended for a Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, etc.
The Purple Heart requires no such recommendation and only requires the servicemember meet the criteria for the award which include being injured or killed during combat by forces that oppose the United States, and even via friendly fire.
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