In the 1970 film ‘Patton’, George C. Scott, who portrays the titular character, clicks his heels and salutes as the bugler sounds off the Third Army call. In multiple camera shots, you see the general coated in numerous awards, decorations, and badges. People have always had a fascination in seeing the brightly colored ribbon bars and see it as a sign of an accomplished veteran. Those awards are kept with them throughout their lifetime, but as well all know, the uncertainties of life can interfere. Things get lost in a move, a natural disaster claims our valuables, or are simply lost to time and never found again. Fortunately, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) provides a valuable service to veterans along with giving them access to their records; requesting their service awards and decorations.
The Department of Defense and the Armed Forces have specific criteria on who and what is eligible for receiving a veterans’ awards and because that criteria is so varied and lengthy, this is the first of a four part article on how to request awards from each of the service branches. This post will discuss the research process and determination of awards, decorations, and badges. There are a plethora of private vendors selling decorations, but requesting them through the National Personnel Record Center is a bonafide way of receiving authentic and the correct awards.
Military decorations can be broken down into the following categories:
- Personal decorations: awards for gallantry, distinguished service, heroism, commendation, achievements, and meritorious service.
- Unit awards: given to all members of a military unit who participated in action within a specific time frame.
- Service awards: given to those with exemplary actions and personal achievement during active duty service.
- Campaign awards: given those that participated in a designated military action within the duration of a campaign against a hostile enemy force.
- Training ribbons: awarded to individuals that excelled in basic training courses and graduated from training schools with honors.
- Marksmanship badges: awarded to individuals based on their proficiency with a variety of weapons.
Requesting medals through the National Personnel Records Center ensures that a veteran will receive all medals that they are entitled to, as they could be a recipient of a retroactive award (e.g. service members who served in Korea since 1954 are eligible for the Korea Defense Service Medal, which was established in 2002). Unlike most requests for military records, medals requests are only allowed by the veteran, spouse, and next-of-kin. John Q. Public can’t write in asking for their friend’s Sgt. John Doe’s medals as a surprise birthday gift; it’ll get denied faster than an overdrawn debit card at the liquor store.
Once the request is submitted, NARA technicians research the record by looking at specific documents listing awards; DD Form 214, DA-20, general orders, citations, etc. Additionally, NARA cross-checks the veterans service dates and foreign service against lists of unit awards to see if they’re eligible. These lists break everything down by division, battalion, regiment, and company so reviewing these documents can be time consuming. The payoff though is entirely worth it as the veteran can get every decoration and award they’re entitled to for sure. In those cases when there’s a problem verifying a medal or the veteran claims they were awarded a certain medal, the service branch has the final say in such a matter. When the research is done, the information is submitted to the appropriate service branch for verification. NARA doesn’t manufacture the medals, only supplies the information to the service branch.
Along with the medal ribbons are what are called appurtenances. These are small bronze, silver, or gold shapes affixed on the ribbons to indicate multiple issues of said award or special recognition. These include, but are not limited to the following:
- Oak leaf clusters: placed on personal awards like a Purple Heart or Achievement Medal. If a veteran was wounded twice, they receive the Purple Heart and a bronze oak leaf cluster. Bronze clusters indicate one award and silver indicates five awards.
- Service stars: indicate the time spent in a campaign in a hostile area. If a veteran served in Iraq or Kuwait between August 1990 and April 1991, they receive two bronze stars on their Southwest Asia Service Medal. Bronze stars indicate one award and silver indicates five awards.
- Numerals: similar to the oak leaf cluster, numerals are used to indicate multiple issuance of a specific award.
- “V” device: indicate acts of valor during combat. If a veteran acted with valor during combat and was awarded the Bronze Star Medal, they also receive a “V” device.
- Loops: indicates multiple issuance of the Good Conduct Medal.
- Arrowhead device: awarded to service members who participated in an assault, combat jump, or first amphibious landing.
Awards aren’t only for gallantry, heroism, and personal achievement, but also for marksmanship abilities. Each service branch uses a system of evaluating a person’s proficiency with a weapon and is given a corresponding badge. There are three commonly used levels; marksman, sharpshooter, and expert. Underneath that is a small bar reflecting the type of weapon with that proficiency level. If a soldier scored high enough marks with an M-16 and .45 pistol, they’d receive that badge and a Rifle and Pistol bar attachments.
Commonly, veterans request their medals for personal usage, such as creating a shadowbox or passing them onto their children or grandchildren. In addition, veterans routinely request their awards upon hearing that they qualify for awards retroactively. This happens when a new award is created by the service branch, DOD, or Congress or eligibility of an existing award is expanded.
A famous example is the issuance of the Bronze Star Medal to World War II veterans. If a veteran received the Combat Infantryman Badge (CIB) while serving a theater of operations during World War II, they are immediately eligible for a Bronze Star Medal. As the World War II generation continues to shrink daily, more and more medals requests like these are becoming commonplace. Another routinely requested award is the Combat Action Ribbon for Navy and Marine Corps service members. The Department of the Navy maintains a strict accounting of every ship and Marine Corps unit that engages in combat and when those ledgers are updated, veterans can apply to see if they’re eligible for the CAR.
This all seems overwhelming, doesn’t it? While the process seems daunting on the surface, the real nitty-gritty occurs with the technicians who need to be 100% accurate in their research. Not just the NARA techs, but the service members who verify and approve the information. All it takes is one mistake or miscommunication to render a veteran’s award application ineligible. This is why it’s so terribly important to be as detailed and truthful through every stage of the medals process.
This has been a basic (and I mean VERY basic) introduction to U.S. military awards and decorations. For more information, you can visit the different heraldry offices for the Armed Forces and read about every award that is currently issued. The next chapter will look exclusively at Army medals, how to request them, and see how they’ve changed through the United States’ involvement in global conflicts.