Service Medals and Their Meanings

Posted on Aug 08, 2019

Did you know there are more than 50 different medals that a service member can earn? Here's a look at some of the most prestigious service medals in the military.


Everyone has heard of the Purple Heart, but did you know there are more than 50 different medals that a service member can earn? These military awards are distributed by the President of the United States, the House, and the Senate, as well as the individual branches of the military. But, how did this tradition get started, and what do the medals mean?

History

The use of service medals goes back hundreds of years. The Roman Empire used coronas (crowns), armillae (arm bands), and phalerae (discs worn on the uniform, closest to modern medals) in 47 BC to honor their commanders and generals at the end of their military campaigns. The Revolutionary War brought us the first instance of a common soldier earning a medal; up until that point medals were saved for higher-ranking service members. In 1780, three soldiers intercepted and captured a spy named John Andre, who had just met with the now-famous Benedict Arnold. Despite Andre’s arguing and attempts to bribe them with large sums of money, the soldiers turned him in. As a reward for their honorable service, the Continental Congress gave each man the Fidelity Medallion. This was the first time a medal was used in our nation’s history.

Medals and Meanings

These are some of the most well-known medals that can be awarded to service members. Each branch also has specific medals for various achievements, and there are specific medals for certain wars, battles, and expeditions. 

Medal of Honor

This is the highest military award that can be bestowed upon a service member. The president awards the Medal of Honor to individuals who go above and beyond the call of duty in situations where they may be engaged with an enemy of the United States, engaged with an ally who is engaged with an enemy, or when they are involved in a conflict with an opposing foreign force.

Distinguished Service Cross

This is the second-highest award that a military member can earn. In the past, it was awarded to the Army and the Army Air Forces, but now it is just used for Army awards. Individuals who have gone above and beyond the call of duty, but do not qualify for the Medal of Honor are given the Distinguished Service Cross. 

Silver Star

The third highest medal is the Silver Star, which is awarded for gallantry in action in situations where the service member may be engaged with an enemy of the United States, engaged with an ally who is engaged with an enemy, or when they are involved in a conflict with an opposing foreign force. 

Legion of Merit

The Legion of Merit medal is one of two decorations that can be worn around the neck (the other is the Medal of Honor). This medal can be issued to United States service members as well as foreign military and political figures for exemplary service and achievements.

Purple Heart

The Purple Heart may be the most widely recognized military award because it is the oldest decoration still in use. It is given to service members who have been injured or killed in the line of duty. Family members are able to request the medal for any service member who died while serving on or after April 5, 1917. Learn more about the history of the Purple Heart on our blog.

Prisoner of War Medal

President Ronald Reagan authorized the use of this medal in 1985, but it can be given to any service member who was taken as a prisoner of war on or after April 5, 1917 (the day before the United States entered World War I).

These medals are handed down through the generations as family treasures and are a tribute to the service members who wear them. You may not personally be able to give medals to our nation’s heroes, but you can show your appreciation in other ways - like joining Soldiers’ Angels! We have lots of opportunities to support veterans, military families, and deployed service members.