What is the Significance of the Medal of Honor?

By Sandi Gohn

To some, the Medal of Honor signifies profound valor and heroism. To others, it symbolizes immense sacrifice, dedication and service. But to the list of recipients, the medal’s significance is often deeply personal and filled with a myriad of emotions unique to each individual and their experience.

The Medal of Honor is the most prestigious of the military medals of America and is the highest decoration a service member can receive for valor in combat. Created during the Civil War, the Medal of Honor has been presented to roughly 3,500 recipients in just over 150 years.

The Medal of Honor. | Photo credit DVIDS/U.S. Navy

Presented only to those who have distinguished themselves in action against an enemy of the U.S. by risking their life and showing “personal bravery or self-sacrifice so conspicuous,” the Medal of Honor is reserved for the bravest of the brave.

Here’s what every American should know about this medal, reserved for those service members who have gone above and beyond in the line of duty:

The Medal of Honor has roots in the Civil War.

The Medal of Honor was established by President Abraham Lincoln in December 1861 to acknowledge extreme courage and bravery by Union sailors and Marines fighting in the Civil War. A few months later, on July 12, 1862, Congress signed a law extending eligibility for the award to soldiers in the Army. The Medal of Honor has since been awarded to service members from every military branch, except the newly founded Space Force.

The president usually awards the Medal of Honor in the name of Congress.

All recipients are presented the medal in the name of Congress, although the president is typically the one who physically gives the award to the honoree or their family. Most recently, President Joe Biden presented the medal posthumously to Army Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe and Army Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Celiz, as well as Army Master Sgt. Earl Plumlee, who received the award in person.

Depending on a Medal of Honor recipient’s military branch, they will receive one of three “types” of medals.

There is a Navy Medal of Honor, an Army Medal of Honor and an Air Force Medal of Honor. These three medals are similar in appearance; however, there are slight variations among them.

Photo credit U.S. Special Operations Command

The different versions of the Medal of Honor.

Those with a Medal of Honor should be referred to as Medal of Honor “recipients" — not as “winners.”

While the Medal of Honor is the most prestigious American military medal, for many recipients, it is a tangible reminder of a very difficult moment in their life, and often represents immense personal loss and sacrifice. Many recipients lost friends and fellow service members in the event that made them eligible for the Medal of Honor. Out of respect for the solemn nature of the actions surrounding the award, many living recipients do not view the Medal of Honor as a prize that is won, but rather as an award that is bestowed upon them; for this reason, the phrase “Medal of Honor recipient” should be used.

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19 people have earned the Medal of Honor twice.

The last time a service member received two Medals of Honor was during World War I. Interestingly, the five most recent double recipients were awarded two Medals of Honor for a single act of valor because they were Marines working with the Army during their act of valor. They received a medal from both the Navy and the Army, although the rules regarding the number of awards that can be presented for a single act have since changed.

A few civilians have received the Medal of Honor.

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker. | Photo credit National Institutes of Health

During the Civil War, eight civilians — including the only female honoree Dr. Mary Walkerreceived the Medal of Honor. Civilians are no longer eligible to receive the award and instead, if eligible, are presented merits like the Presidential Medal of Freedom or the Congressional Gold Medal for extraordinary actions or achievements.

The Medal of Honor can be awarded posthumously.

Many Medals of Honor have been awarded posthumously. In 2019, President Trump posthumously awarded Army Staff Sgt. Travis W. Atkins the Medal of Honor, and his son received the award on his behalf. The year prior, Air Force Master Sgt. John A. Chapman was also posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, which was presented to his wife. Chapman was the first airman to receive the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War.

Most recently, after a long campaign to have him recognized, Army Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn C. Cashe was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his courageous actions in 2005. While in Iraq, Cashe dove back into a burning vehicle three times while under enemy fire to rescue trapped soldiers. During the rescue, Cashe’s uniform, which was soaked in fuel, caught on fire, giving him second and third-degree burns. Despite the burns, Cashe continued to pull soldiers from the vehicle and refused to be placed on the medical evacuation helicopter until all other wounded men had been flown to safety. He later died of his injuries. On Dec. 16, 2021, Cashe’s family was presented with his Medal of Honor by President Joe Biden; he is the first Black recipient of the medal since 9/11.

There’s only one Coast Guard Medal of Honor recipient.

Signalman 1st Class Douglas A. Munro sent his family this snapshot of himself wearing side arms aboard his ship. | Photo credit Coast Guard photo

Signalman 1st Class Douglas Munro received the award posthumously more than 75 years ago for saving Marines during the Battle of Guadalcanal during World War II.

Medal of Honor recipients receive a handful of benefits along with the medal.

In addition to a lifelong monthly stipend, Medal of Honor recipients have special “Space-A” - that is, “space available” - air transportation privileges, and their children can attend the military academies (without nomination and regardless of quota requirements), among other benefits.

Particularly in the 20th and 21st centuries, Medal of Honor recipients have inspired TV shows (including Netflix’s recent “Medal of Honor” series), movies (like “Hacksaw Ridge” and “Blackhawk Down”), and video games (like the currently popular “Medal of Honor” gaming franchise).

There are plans for a Medal of Honor museum in North Texas.

In addition to the efforts to establish a National Medal of Honor Museum in Texas, there is also a movement for a Medal of Honor monument to be established in Washington, D.C.

- This story was originally published on USO.org in March 2021. It has been updated in 2022.

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