By Danielle DeSimone
If you’ve ever walked by a service member wearing their full dress uniform, chances are you’ve wondered what the colorful ribbons or medals on their jacket mean.
There are literally hundreds of military awards and decorations – each with their own significance, criteria and history – across all of the different branches of the U.S. military. Although some of these awards are easier to identify than others, here are six important medals of America that you can easily spot with a quick glance:
1. Medal of Honor
The most prestigious of all U.S. military decorations, the Medal of Honor (sometimes informally called the “Congressional Medal of Honor”) is the highest medal any U.S. service member can receive.
Since it was created during the Civil War in 1861, the medal has only been given to “the bravest of the brave” and is awarded to service members who have displayed exceptional valor on the battlefield against an enemy. There are three versions of the medal – for the Army, Air Force and Navy (Coast Guard and Marine Corps personnel receive the Navy version) – and all recipients are given the award by the current president.
Past Medal of Honor recipients include former President Theodore Roosevelt, Daniel Daly (known for his famous World War I battle yell, “Come on, you sons of b******, do you want to live forever?!”) and Travis Atkins (who sacrificed his life for his men in Iraq in 2007). To date, there have been 3,473 Medals of Honor awarded to service members across all branches.
2. Distinguished Service Cross
This medal of America is awarded to soldiers who have risked their life while displaying extraordinary heroism in battle. The Distinguished Service Cross is the second highest military award that can be given to a member of the Army, following closely behind the Medal of Honor.
The award was established by President Woodrow Wilson in 1918 to acknowledge the bravery and sacrifice of American forces involved in World War I. Prior to 1960 and the establishment of the Air Force Cross, it was also presented to qualifying members in the Army Air Forces (the predecessor to the Air Force) and the Air Force.
Notable past recipients include George Patton IV (Gen. George S. Patton’s son who served in Vietnam) and Richard Winters (whose story was famously immortalized in the HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers”).
3. Navy Cross
Much like its Army counterpart, the Navy Cross is the second-highest decoration awarded to members of the Navy, Marine Corps and, until recently, Coast Guard for distinguished heroism in combat (the Coast Guard Cross was created in 2010 but has yet to be awarded to a service member).
Famous Navy Cross recipients include Doris “Dorie” Miller, the first African American recipient who earned his Navy Cross for his actions during the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the famous Lewis Burwell Puller (better known as “Chesty Puller”) of the Marine Corps.
4. Air Force Cross
The Air Force Cross follows the paths of the Distinguished Service Cross and the Navy Cross and is the second highest military award that can be given to members of the Air Force.
Established in 1960, the Air Force Cross has been awarded to the likes of George “Bud” Day (a World War II, Korean War and Vietnam aviator veteran, as well as a prisoner of war and Medal of Honor recipient) and John A. Chapman (whose Air Force Cross was posthumously upgraded to the Medal of Honor).
Chapman was the first airman to receive the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War.
5. Distinguished Flying Cross
The Air Force isn’t the only branch of the military with service members in the sky. The Distinguished Flying Cross, one of the highest U.S. military decorations, can be awarded to any member of the Army, Navy, Air Force or Department of Homeland Security for heroism or extraordinary achievement while in aerial flight and engaged in action with the enemy.
The award was created in 1926 and has had several notable recipients, including former President George H. W. Bush (who served in the Navy), Thomas Patten Stafford (a former Air Force pilot, NASA astronaut and commander of Apollo 10) and Eileen Collins (a former Air Force colonel and NASA astronaut, who was the first female pilot and commander of a space shuttle).
6. Purple Heart Medal
Because of its long and storied history, the Purple Heart and its criteria are often confused with other military medals of America. Officially established in 1782 by President George Washington as the “Badge of Military Merit,” the Purple Heart was originally intended to be given to soldiers who displayed gallantry in battle.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur later reestablished the Purple Heart to what we know it as today: an award given to those wounded or killed in combat while engaged with the enemy. The Purple Heart can be given to any service member in any branch of the military, and several famous recipients have included everyone from Kurt Vonnegut to former President John F. Kennedy John McCain.
More from the USO
Sep 22, 2021
‘Miles Apart But Still in My Heart’: USO Supporter Crafts Cards for Service Members and Military Families
Americans have been mailing cards to members of the U.S. military for decades, hoping to lift the spirits of those serving our country away from home. But USO supporter Sharon Ware takes a different approach ¬– she shows her love for our nation’s military not by mailing cards, but by making them by hand and sharing them with the USO.
Sep 21, 2021
What is it Like to Be a USO Supporter in Alaska?
Whether staff members are catching a C-17 to fly out to Bethel, Alaska, or taking a two-day journey by land and sea to Cordova, Alaska, the USO Alaska team is ready to support service members and military families, no matter where their journey takes them in the state.
Sep 20, 2021
Meet the USO’s Global Ambassadors and Learn Why They Give More Than Thanks
For decades, actors, musicians, athletes and entertainers have joined the USO in supporting the troops. Now, the USO introduces the new USO Global Ambassadors who will act as a bridge between the civlian and military communities, and help raise awareness for the USO's crucial mission: Wilmer Valderrama and Kellie Pickler.