Efficiency, Honor, Fidelity: The Good Conduct Medal

The U.S. Armed Forces expects the best from every servicemember from basic training to an honorable discharge. They represent the highest ideals of their service branch, striving for the highest. As a result, everyone’s performance record is tracked for posterity. Evaluations track a member’s aptitude and accomplishments which helps determine promotions and awards. One award, whose origins stretch back to right after the American Civil War, recognizes exemplary behavior, commitment, and dedication to military service: the Good Conduct Medal.

Good Conduct Medal from each service branch. Left to right; Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard

In 1869, the Navy created the first Good Conduct Medal (GCM). The purpose was to recognize a period of honorable service following a sailor’s discharge. If they completed at least three years of honorable service, they received the GCM (which was actually a badge) along with the discharge paperwork or re-enlistment contract. The award wasn’t even allowed to be worn on the uniform until 1885 when the second version of the medal was released. Between 1869 and 1996, the Navy GCM underwent four revisions, each one having a different design and criteria. Designers switched between a Maltese cross or a simple circle design with varying types of ships, anchors, or a globe (some officers rejected the globe version because it signaled ‘imperialist qualities’).

Navy Good Conduct Medal, circa 1886 (Image courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command)

In 1896, the Marine Corps followed suit with the Navy and created their own GCM with the added feature of having the recipient’s name stamped onto the reverse side of the medal. The Coast Guard GCM came later in 1921, the Army GCM in 1941 following Executive Order 8809, and the Air Force was last in 1963. Until 1963. Air Force personnel were given the Army GCM because they shared the same regulations and award standards until the early 1960s.

The GCM is one of the more commonly issued awards in the military; outpaced by the National Defense Service Medal and the Army Service Ribbon. Unlike some awards, the GCM has specific time requirements. Service members were to demonstrate three or four years of honorable service to qualify for the award, depending on the time period. How did an enlisted person’s superior determine honorable service? High standards of job performance and not committing any infractions or UMCJ violations are absolutely necessary for anyone hoping to receive the GCM. The Navy maintains a grade system where every 90 days, a sailor receives marks for their performance and if at any point it dips too low, they immediately become ineligible to receive the award. The same criteria extends to the Marine Corps as well. A Marine must have three years of ‘honorable and faithful service’. Prior to December 1945, it was four years, but later reduced to three. The Coast Guard GCM was established in 1921 by the Coast Guard Commandant and they used many of the same criteria used by the Navy and Marine Corps; a grading system combined with three years of honorable service (reduced from the original requirement of four years).

The Army GCM has the unique distinction of being created by the President of the United States. Under Executive Order 8809 signed by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941, the Army GCM was established with a three year requirement. By 1943, FDR signed a follow-up order, EO 9323, amending the time requirement to one year if the United States was at war. Since the order was signed in the midst of World War II, many Army veterans unknowingly qualified for the medal since they enlisted for the duration of the conflict. Thousands of veterans applied for the medal retroactively following the war. Qualifications changed again during the Korean War when President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 10444 in 1953. It allowed service members to receive their first GCM after June 27, 1950 for a period of less than three years, but more than one year. It also included a clause allowing soldiers who were discharged from combat injuries or died in the line of duty if they served for less than a year.

Elvis Presley returning to the US after serving three years in the Army. He received the Good Conduct Medal (wearing the appropriate ribbon in the above picture) along with a handful of weapon qualification badges, circa 1960 (Image Courtesy of the Graceland Archives)

The Air Force was the last to adopt a GCM. It also holds a special distinction by being the only GCM to have been authorized by an Act of Congress in 1960. In the interim years of the branch’s creation in 1947 and the first GCM awarded in 1963, Air Force servicemembers were judged by Army standards until the Air Force developed its own. Additionally, airmen serving before and after 1963 can wear both the Army and Air Force versions of the GCM. By 2006, debates within the Department of the Air Force occurred on whether or not the branch should even have a GCM. The rationale being that Air Force personnel should be held by a higher standard of conduct than any other branch. Therefore, something like a medal for good conduct was out of place since exemplary performance and behavior was the expectation, not an aberration. In 2006, the Air Force GCM was discontinued. This policy didn’t last long however. Within two years, officials began reconsidering the decision and reversed themselves in 2008. All servicemembers who would have qualified for the award in those years were retroactively issued the medal.

Now the uniqueness doesn’t end here for the GCM. Appurtenances go with almost every award in the U.S. Armed Forces; oak leaves, stars, arrowheads, etc. The Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard use bronze stars to denote multiple GCM awards; oak leaves for the Air Force. For the Army however, they use an appurtenance wholly unique to their version; a loop. The loop harkens back to when the Navy used enlistment bars on their GCM badges denoting years of service. Bronze, silver, and gold loops mark the number of subsequent awards:

  • Bronze loops are used for the second through the fifth awards.
  • Silver loops are used for the sixth through the tenth awards.
  • Gold loops are used for the eleventh through the fifteenth awards.

By this process, a servicemember can theoretically receive the GCM a grand total of fifteen times; meaning they could have served more than forty-five years in the military, without any infraction or judicial punishments and receive stellar ratings in every performance report. Is such a scenario possible? Yes, but only a handful of people have served in the U.S. Armed Forces for such a duration. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, John William Vessey Jr., Chesty Puller, and Omar Bradley are such record holders (Bradley with the highest record at 69 years, 8 months, 7 days).

Fidelity, exemplary behavior, and honor emulating the high standards of conduct expected of a sailor, soldier, or airman are encapsulated with the GCM. When they receive that award, they have shown that they can act and lead by example the golden standard of honor, hard work, and loyalty everyone expects of each other in the U.S. military.

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