The U.S. Air Force is the youngest service branch of the U.S. Armed Forces (I know there’s the Space Force, but that’s a story for another day and as of right now, they’re just using the same medals as the Air Force). Prior to the Cold War, aerial warfare was part of the Army with the sub-branches of the Army Air Corps and the Army Air Force. The National Security Act of 1947 established the U.S. Air Force as a separate branch and on September 18, 1947 the Air Force became independent and began its own operations and forming commands.
During the Air Forces’ early years, they borrowed heavily from the Army’s list of awards and decorations. It wasn’t uncommon for a Air Force veteran that served during the Korean War to be awarded the Army Good Conduct Medal. Following the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Air Force began drafting its own award system and designing the decorations. More awards were established during and after the Vietnam War and with the creation of the Space Force, proposals for new awards have been issued too. Ribbons and medals made especially for the Air Force include, but are not limited to the Air Force Cross, Airman’s Medal, AF Longevity Service Ribbon, AF Training Ribbon, AF Special Duty Ribbon, and the Aerial Achievement Medal. While the Air Force does not issue extensive marksmanship badges as the Army does with all the different weapon bars, they do issue ribbons that indicate proficiency with small arms and receive appurtenances for multiple awards. The Air Force does issue a wide arrange of badges that cover everything from pilot wings, to flight surgeons, and to one of the most coveted, the astronaut badge.
Army and Air Force awards are varied in their qualifications and design, but it doesn’t end there. How Air Force medals requests are processed is different too. In the previous post on Army Medals (For Distinguishing Service), an Army veteran just needs to submit a request through the National Personnel Records Center, a technician submits the pertinent information to the Army TACOM, who re-issues the medals; a process that be done multiple times. The process for Air Force veterans is marginally different and here’s why:
- The U.S. Air Force allows a one-time submission for the re-issuance of awards and decorations. When requested, this cannot be repeated by another party in the future
NPRC technicians submit Army medals information directly to the Army via online through TACOM which generates an immediate request number for veterans to follow-up on later. For Air Force medals, technicians complete an NA Form 13059 ‘Transmittal of And/Or Entitlement to Awards‘. The form is a long list of every medal, ribbon, and decoration issued by the Air Force and a technicians checks off boxes corresponding to the veteran’s entitled award. Unit awards are also included and technicians compare OMPFs to these lists, similar to the Army unit awards. The completed form is copied three times:
- First copy is placed inside the Official Military Personnel Folder to show that the awards have been issued previously
- Second copy is mailed to the requester
- Third copy is forwarded to the Air Force Personnel Center, located at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, TX
Awards and decorations come directly from the AFPC, not the NPRC. Once they have the NA Form 13059, it remains in their queue until completed. The Air Force keeps this document to ensure that the medals are only re-issued once. Depending on the nature of the request (wanting replacements, petitioning for a new medal, etc.) sometimes the process can take months or even years; it all depends on the AFPC’s priorities.
Award eligibility is slightly different between the Air Force and Army too. What are automatic awards for one branch are reciprocal for the other. A signature example is the Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Unit Palm Citation. This foreign award was retroactively awarded to all Army veterans, but not to the Air Force. Only those who were awarded the medal while serving in Vietnam can request it again. Air Force veterans that served in Vietnam do automatically receive the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with 1960 device for service in country.
Let’s look at some examples of Air Force medals! Assume that for the following scenarios that the veteran has the supporting documentation in their record:
- Served in Vietnam from 2 April 1968 to 22 February 1969
- Qualified expert marksman for the M-16
- Enlisted on 30 March 1967 and discharged on 15 September 1971
- Served in the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing throughout Vietnam tour
- Veteran received the AFOUA because he served with the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing which received the award while stationed in Vietnam
- The VSM with three stars and the RVN Campaign w/1960 device because he served in Vietnam in that time frame
- Veteran doesn’t receive the Cross of Gallantry because it’s not an automatic unit award and was not awarded to the 37th Tactical Wing
- Received the AFLSA for at least 4 years of honorable service in the branch
- Received the SAEMR for being qualified with the M-16
That was pretty easy! Now let’s do a more difficult one. Again, assume the veteran has all the supporting documentation:
- Served in both Operation Desert Shield and Operation Enduring Freedom
- Enlisted on 7 June 1989 and discharged on 6 June 2009
- Received all good conduct marks throughout service
- Qualified expert marksman with the M-16
- Completed 10 combat missions with the 455th Air Expeditionary Group stationed at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan
- Cited for valor in combat against the enemy, worthy of the Air Force Cross
- Received the Air Force Cross following in record citation
- Participated in aerial combat after 2007 so eligible for the AF Combat Action Medal (retroactive to 11 September 2001)
- Received the Meritorious Unit Award twice while serving with the 455th Air Expeditionary Group (awarded twice when stationed in Afghanistan)
- Received appurtenances with the Good Conduct Medal for multiple years of good marks and performance
- The National Defense Service Medal has a bronze service star because the veteran served in two conflicts (Gulf War, War on Terror)
- Received the Southwest Asia Service Medal and Afghanistan Campaign medal for participating in Desert Shield and Enduring Freedom
- Received the GWOTSM and GWOTEM for service overseas during the Global War on Terror
- Overseas Long Ribbon for completing more than two years overseas
- Completed 20 years of service so veteran received AFLSA with oak leaves
- AF Training Ribbon for completing basic military training
On top of all these awards, because there’s documentation that he’s a combat pilot, he gets a pilot’s badge above the ribbon rack:
I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading about U.S. Air Force awards and decorations! For my next installment, I’ll have a combined U.S. Navy / Marine Corps article as they share nearly all of the same types of medals. Additionally, the Navy and Marine Corps have a huge array of retroactive award policies, specific rules on automatic and unit awards, and awards for naval ships and vessels too. Even though the share many of the same medals, there are a couple of tiny differences between the Navy and Marine Corps, but we’ll go through it all!