The honors and awards system of the United States Armed Forces is a complex plethora of valorous recognition to blanket participation in the service branches. Keen-eyed veterans can distinguish the numerous ribbons, bars, badges, and patches on another veteran’s uniform. A handful of veterans carry the distinction of awards for high gallantry, valor, and bravery, i.e. the Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, Distinguished Service Cross. Others are more ubiquitous, i.e. the Army Service Ribbon, Air Force Training Ribbon, Honorable Discharge Button, etc. These are found throughout millions of personnel records. One medal has achieved a unique distinction amongst the routine awards. Established near the end of the Korean War, the National Defense Service Medal (NDSM) has graced the ribbon racks of millions of veterans. The Department of Defense estimates that since 1953, the NDSM was awarded at least four million times, not even counting those who apply for it retroactively. With the exception of the Good Conduct medals, the NDSM is the oldest currently issued service medal in the U.S. awards system (medals not for valor, combat, or participation in a campaign). The NDSM is authorized at the discretion of the Secretary of Defense who determines when a national emergency is present and allows the NDSM to be awarded. This means that the NDSM has gone through periods of inactivity.
On Tuesday, August 30th, 2022, the first anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin signed orders ending issuance of the National Defense Service Medal for the War on Terror. After January 1, 2023, no active duty service members that enlist after said date will receive the medal. This marks the longest period that the NDSM was authorized; 21 years, 3 months, and 20 days.
What are this award’s origins? How did this award become so procedural? The answer lies with President Dwight D. Eisenhower. During the Korean War, President Eisenhower became concerned with growing contentions in the Cold War. If the U.S. became embroiled in every ‘hot spot’, the honors system would be overwhelmed with potentially conflicting and overlapping service medals. President Harry Truman already created the Korean Service Medal for service in the Korean War. President Eisenhower conceived the idea of a ‘blanket campaign’ medal that would be issued to any honorably discharged veteran with active service during a ‘national emergency’. What stipulated a ‘national emergency’ remained at the discretion of the Secretary of Defense. No matter where they served, the NDSM signified military service. On April 22, 1953, President Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10448 ‘Establishing the National Defense Service Medal‘ outlining its basic qualifications:
“There is hereby established the National Defense Service Medal, with suitable appurtenances, for award, under such regulations as the Secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force and the Secretary of the Treasury may severally prescribe, and, subject to the provisions of this order, to members of the armed forces of the United States who shall have served during any period between June 27, 1950, and a terminal date to be fixed by the Secretary of Defense…”Executive Order 10448, April 22, 1953
This order delegated authority to the Secretary of Defense to determine eligibility dates. The Department of Defense followed up in on July 15, 1953 directive by expanding on personnel eligibility, issuance procedure, and ribbon layout. This introduced restrictions to the NDSM and made the following not eligible:
- Reserve component personnel on short tours of active duty
- Reserve component personnel on temporary active status for boards, commissions, etc.
- Personnel undergoing physical examinations
- Active duty for purposes other than for extended active duty
Like everything in the federal government, policies undergo several revisions depending on world events, budgets, and the political climate. Since 1953, the NDSM was revised by three executive orders, inactivated and reactivated four times, and expanded from active duty service to National Guard and Reservist service. The four active periods coincide with major wars; Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, and the War on Terror. In the 1960s and 1970s as the Vietnam War intensified, active duty servicemembers performing stateside service along with reservists and Guardsmen qualified for the award. The same criteria applied to Desert Storm participants. By the War on Terror, the NDSM expanded qualifications to its greatest extent. Members of the Selected Reserve Personnel (actively drilling reservists and Guardsmen) were eligible for the award. Since 9/11, service members could receive the NDSM almost as a given if they completed ninety days of consecutive active duty, not including training periods. Those who are on active duty for multiple approved time periods receive bronze star appurtenances on the NDSM and ribbon. Officer cadets that graduate from military academies can receive the NDSM along with those at Officer Candidate Schools upon their commission.
While the National Defense Service Medal is one of the most issued awards, it can sometimes be overlooked by clerks and records technicians when discharging a veteran with only a few weeks of service. Technically, if a member receives an Uncharacterized or Entry Level Separation, they are nominally entitled to the NDSM. However, the service branches don’t consider the initial training period as true active duty. If an individual drops from initial training, the award isn’t added to their DD Form 214 (separation document). Many veterans apply for a retroactive issuance of the NDSM if it doesn’t appear on their discharge and they served during one of the four authorized time periods.
Typically if a veteran served during a conflict, the NDSM would form as part of the ‘automatic’ awards for overseas service in a combat zone. Serving overseas is not a prerequisite for the NDSM, but if one is serving in a hostile area, receiving the NDSM is pretty much a given. Vietnam War veterans automatically receive the Vietnam Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal, and the NDSM if they’re in country. Korean War veterans receive the Korean Service Medal, United Nations Service Medal, and the NDSM. Desert Storm; the Southwest Asia Service Medal and the Kuwait Liberation Medal along with the NDSM. With such a criteria, one can plainly see why the NDSM is the most routinely issued award in the U.S. Armed Forces.
That’ll all change after December 31, 2022. The decision by the Department of Defense signals a more peacetime posture with the limitation of troop deployments and counterterrorism operations. We’re still involved in Syria, but major combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have all ceased. Many veterans can scarcely remember a time when the NDSM wasn’t issued or couldn’t be found on a ribbon rack. Its appearance and commonality gave it a distinctive nickname, the ‘pizza stain’ for its red and yellow colors. Despite its formulaic criteria and issuance, the National Defense Service Medal for many represents their commitment at a time when the nation needed their service.