Distinguishing Service: Requesting U.S. Army Medals (2 of 4)

For as long as the United States Army has existed, there have been awards and decorations that were given for acts of valor and heroism.  Since the American Revolution, such awards were not specifically regulated until World War I, but ones like the Badge of Military Merit were forerunners to the Purple Heart. The Medal of Honor, established during the American Civil War, was the first to be regulated following Congressional legislation and was accompanied by benefits. At the turn of the 19th century, the Spanish-American War resulted in the first use of campaign medals and the creation of retroactive medals like the Civil War and Indian War campaign medals. It wasn’t until World War I and during World War II that the Department of the Army, Congress, and the White House began instituting more types of medals for its service members.

Sgt. William Harvey Carney, the first African American soldier to receive the Medal of Honor. He was decorated for his courage under fire and valor in saving the regimental colors during the Battle of Fort Wagner in the American Civil War. He didn’t receive the medal for at least 37 years after the battle (Photo courtesy of James Reed, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University)

Since 1917, there have been dozens of new medals and updated version of obsolete ones. We’ve seen the creation of the Purple Heart, Silver Star, Bronze Star, Distinguished Service Cross and Medal, the Soldier’s Medal, and the Army Commendation Medal and Army Achievement Medal. These don’t even include the large number of service awards like the Army Service Ribbon, NCO (Non-commissioned Officer) Professional Development Ribbon, Overseas Service Ribbon. It still doesn’t even account for all the Army Reserve awards either or even the Weapons Qualifications badges either. Unit awards are a whole other category as well with the Presidential Unit Citation, Valorous Unit Citation, and much more. Within the Department of the Army (DOA), there are civilian-grade awards as well for public service and meritorious achievement which are given to civilian employees within the Army. In summary, the U.S. Army has exponentially grown its list of personal awards and even more so with each conflict that the U.S. Army engages with the enemy overseas. This article continues from the previous post (Gallantry and Valor) by describing various types of U.S. Army medals, what medals belong to which conflict, retroactive awards, and how veterans can request their medals through the National Personnel Records Center. Because of the immense catalog of awards and decorations, more in-depth research can be done privately on the history of Army awards and so here we’ll highlight some of the most common facets and types of medals.

As previously stated in ‘Gallantry and Valor‘ awards are divided into categories such as personal decorations, service, campaign, weapon badges, and unit awards. There are those a veteran receives for meritorious and heroic actions, for participating in a campaign during wartime, for personal achievement, and for serving with a specific unit that is decorate as a whole. Within each category, there’s a system of appurtenances to denote multiple issuance of the same award (oak leaf clusters, service stars, numerals, devices, etc.). These are used by all the service branches of the United States Armed Forces.

Lt. Gen. James H. Doolitte pictured with his awards and appurtenances. Doolittle became famous for the raids on the Japanese home islands following the attack on Pearl Harbor. They became known as the ‘Doolittle Raids’ (photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force)

A new award is established primarily by these methods:

  1. The DOA establishes criteria for a new award or decoration.
  2. Congress authorizes an award by passing specific legislation.
  3. The President signs an executive order creating a new award.
  4. The Department of Defense (DOD) establishes criteria for a new award.

Medals and awards are not normally established during peacetime. Between the Spanish-American War and World War I, there were practically no new medals and even fewer recipients because the peace-time army was so small. It’s only during wartime that you can see the explosion of new medals and decorations. These are created to recognize the type of conflict and whether or not a person directly participated in combat actions or served in another capacity. Service members can receive awards automatically for being on active duty.

The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) and DOA follow a specific criteria for determining an Army veteran’s medals, which is pulled directly from their Official Military Personnel Folder. Technicians review records thoroughly and cross-check it with lists and ledgers from the DOD to ensure that they are eligible for unit awards. Here’s a breakdown of automatic medals eligible to veterans by directly participating in a campaign overseas against an enemy:

World War I

The World War I Victory Medal (the medal was affixed with battle clasps denoting the battle the soldier fought in as well)

World War II

From left to right, top to bottom: American Defense Service Medal (active duty before December 7th, 1941), American Campaign Medal (service in the American Theater), Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal (service in the Pacific Theater), European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal (service in the European Theater), World War II Victory Medal (active duty between December 7, 1941 to December 31, 1946), Army Occupation Medal (for serving in the occupation forces in WWII Axis countries).

Korean War

National Defense Service Medal (active duty during an armed conflict), Korean Service Medal (active duty service in South Korea between June 27th, 1950 and July 27th, 1954), United Nations Service Medal (international award issued with KSM), Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation (retroactive unit award issued by the Republic of Korea for veterans that participated in conflict)

Vietnam War

National Defense Service Medal (active duty during an armed conflict), Vietnam Service Medal (active duty in the Republic of Vietnam from July 4, 1965 to April 30, 1975), Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Unit Palm Citation (foreign medal awarded retroactively to all U.S. Army veterans with Vietnam service), Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with 1960 device (foreign medal awarded retroactively to all U.S. Army veterans with Vietnam service)

Desert Storm / Gulf War

National Defense Service Medal (active duty during an armed conflict), Southwest Asia Service Medal (active duty service in Southwest Asian region between August 2, 1990 and November 30, 1995), Kuwait Liberation Medal (Saudi Arabia version, active service in the Persian Gulf), Kuwait Liberation Medal (Kuwait version, participated in Operation Desert Storm)

Global War on Terrorism (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, etc.)

From left to right, top to bottom: National Defense Service Medal (active duty during an armed conflict), Afghanistan Campaign Medal (service in Afghanistan from October 24, 2001 to present day), Iraq Campaign Medal (service in Iraq from March 19, 2003 to December 31, 2011), Inherent Resolve Campaign Medal (direct participation in Syria combat actions from June 15, 2014 to present day), Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal (deployed overseas against terrorism from September 11, 2001 to present day) Global War on Terrorism Service Medal (supported operations to counter terrorism from September 11, 2001 to present day),

Medals and other awards can also be issued retroactively if a veteran fits certain eligibility. A large number of awards requests submitted to the NPRC are for retroactive awards that a veteran wants or needs for things such a admission to a VFW or American Legion or VA benefits. Here are some common instances of retroactive Army awards that are given based on certain qualifications:

  1. World War II veterans that received the Combat Infantryman Badge or the Combat Medical Badge are also eligible for the Bronze Star Medal.
  2. Service members who were stationed in South Korea since July 28th, 1954 qualify for the Korea Defense Service Medal. The KDSM was established in December 2002 and is the most requested retroactive Army award.
  3. Service members that served in specific countries within a set time frame are eligible for the Armed Force Expeditionary Medal (criteria set and approved by the Department of Defense.
  4. Veterans of the Korean War that served on active duty in South Korea were eligible to wear the Korean War Service Medal. This is a foreign award that initially was declined by the DOA to wear. In 1999, the Army finally authorized the wearing of the medal.

Requesting awards and decorations from the NPRC can be a lengthy process depending on the nature of the request. If a veterans wants all awarded and eligible medals, the technician reviews documents citing awards such as the DD Form 214, DA 20 Chronological Record, orders, and DOD unit awards lists. Once this is completed, the technician submits the information to the Army TACOM in Philadelphia, which oversees the heraldry office that re-issues medals. All the submitted information is verified and if there’s any conflicting item, the Army Human Resources Command at Fort Knox gives the final say in determining a medal. The NPRC’s only role is providing documentation; the awards come from the Army itself. In the case of the Army, only the next-of-kin can request medals and can be issued multiple times under certain conditions. Awards information can also be obtained by the public through a FOIA request, but the physical medals won’t be; the NPRC only sends a list.

That was a lot to read! But let’s give a sample scenario:

A U.S. Army veteran requests his medals and gives these criteria (and let’s assume that the record contains all supporting documentation):

  • He served in Vietnam from 1 July 1966 to 30 June 1968
  • His MOS was Infantry
  • He was wounded in combat twice
  • There are citations for a Bronze Star Medal with “V” device
  • He served with the 4th Infantry Division the entire time overseas
  • He was briefly captured by the North Vietnamese Army and has bonafide documentation as a prisoner of war

  1. The veteran received the Combat Infantryman Badge for his combat role.
  2. Bronze Star Medal with “V” device because of in-record citation.
  3. Purple Heart with a bronze oak leaf cluster because of being wounded twice in combat.
  4. Prisoner of War Medal for being a captive of enemy forces.
  5. National Defense Service Medal for active duty during an armed conflict.
  6. Vietnam Service Medal with four bronze service stars for time in country.
  7. Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Unit Palm Citation (automatic award for all U.S. Army veterans who served in Vietnam).
  8. Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with 1960 device (automatic award for all U.S. Army veterans who served in Vietnam).
  9. Presidential Unit Citation with bronze oak leaf cluster because unit received award twice while attached to the 4th Infantry Division.

Hopefully this information has been helpful! Check back for the next chapter that will focus on the U.S. Air Force awards and decorations, eligibility, and request process.


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