Eternal Remembrance: National Cemeteries for the U.S. Armed Forces

A calm breeze carries through wide, green, rolling hills. Blades of grass slightly bend as the fallen leaves rustle about on the ground. A handful swirl about, settling against a granite headstone and obscuring the epitaph. The words read: ‘Unknown – U.S. Soldier’ stamped in the shield relief. Stepping back from the marker, what comes into view is an entire field of unknown soldiers. They are not alone however. They are in the company of others who served honorably in the armed forces.

Unknown Soldier – this epitaph is used to denote service members who could not be properly identified after their death. The most notable use of the title is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery

The United States has an elaborate burial system for veterans and their families. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), National Cemetery System, Arlington National Cemetery, the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmens’ Cemetery, the American Battle Monuments Commission, and various cemeteries under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service all comprise the different methods for interring deceased service members. During the American Civil War as private cemeteries were unable to accommodate the increasing number of Union dead, Congress passed legislation authorizing the creation of national cemeteries. Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs, who lost his son Lt. John Meigs, was pivotal in choosing locations. What resulted was arguably the most famous cemetery in the world. Robert E. Lee’s home, Arlington House, was occupied by the Union within weeks of the war’s opening. Generals used the mansion as a headquarters for three years and in June 1864, Meigs ordered the burial of soldiers in the Arlington grounds. Meigs heavily resented Lee joining the Confederacy and historians argue there were political motivations for establishing a cemetery on his property. Union soldiers were buried and monuments were erected in later years, rendering the mansion unlivable. The government originally purchased the land in an estate sale due to delinquent property taxes, but the Lee family argued that the tax sale was improper. In the 1882 Supreme Court case, United States vs. Lee, the court ruled in favor of the Lees and returned the grounds. The victory was short-lived however since the family never occupied the house again and sold the property back to the government for a large sum. Today, Arlington National Cemetery is maintained solely by the U.S. Army, along with the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Cemetery.

Veterans and their spouses are entitled to be buried in a national cemetery. Depending on the current regulations, spouses can choose to have a separate headstone or have their epitaph etched on the rear of the veteran’s marker.

Following both world wars, the VA worked diligently to implement an administrative system that oversaw the maintenance of military cemeteries. In 1973, administration of military cemeteries passed from the Department of Defense to the VA and they established the National Cemetery System. The NCS comprises of 147 military cemeteries, with 131 under the jurisdiction of the Veterans Administration. Another 14 of these are controlled by the National Park Service (the majority of which are battlefields). While the most famous is Arlington; Jefferson Barracks, Fayetteville, Fort Leavenworth, Quantico, and the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific all protect the remains of our deceased veterans. Veterans can interred at any active location (active defined as functioning and eligible for burials meeting environmental standards). Sites under the jurisdiction of the NPS are typically connected to Revolutionary War, Civil War, and Indian War battlefields and are preserved for historical purposes. These include ones like Gettysburg, Andersonville, Little Bighorn, and Yorktown. Modern veterans are not buried at these sites dues to environmental damage that affected any historical preservation efforts.

The above marker is the current style for military interments. Older headstones that have fallen into disrepair or destroyed by vandalism are replaced with this design.

U.S. service members are buried not only in the continental U.S., but overseas as well. The American Battle Monuments Commission administers and operates military cemeteries in countries like France, Belgium, Philippines, Italy, Luxembourg, and Panama. This independent government agency is responsible for maintaining overseas cemeteries and their activities such as wreath, remembrance, and memorial ceremonies. A handful were established as temporary cemeteries during wartime (i.e. Normandy), but many were converted into permanent locations through partnerships with the host country. The AMBC administers these sites, but the physical territory remains under the jurisdiction of the host country.

A military marker is simplistic and straightforward in design and function. The Department of Veterans Affairs confirms the name, date of birth, date of death, final rank at discharge, service branch, wartime service period, and personal awards. A religious designation symbol is placed at the top (if space allows, a personal description is allowed at the family’s request)

So how does a veteran become eligible for burial in a military cemetery? The basic criteria stipulates that a veteran must not have received a bad character of service discharge and provide the required paperwork (DD Form 214, Notice of Separation). A veteran who is killed while on active duty, especially in combat, are guaranteed a burial. National Guard and Reserve members must meet time-specific requirements or been mobilized at any point. What disqualifies a veteran from a military burial would be any of the following:

  1. Other than honorable discharge and lower; i.e. bad conduct or dishonorable.
  2. Convicted of capital crimes (murder, rape, child pornography, terrorism, etc.)
  3. Convicted of sex crimes
  4. Engaged in subversive activities against the United States
  5. Enlisted but never served (referred to as an Uncharacterized Entry Level Separation)

For more information on military burials, visit the VA Burials and Memorials Page.

These cemeteries are solemn, sacred places. Their symbolic value lies in with the soldiers who died serving the nation and are remembered for their deeds. As President Abraham Lincoln stated in his Gettysburg Address:

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

These cemeteries and the memorials built to honor the past and living memory of the deceased and the conflicts are in many ways immortal. People can come and go, but the names are etched, stamped, and emblazoned for eternity in hallowed grounds around the world.

The Marvelous American Autodidact: A Review of ‘Alexander Hamilton’ by Ron Chernow

Music has conveyed messages throughout history, sometimes in novel and ingenious ways. In 2015, the critically acclaimed musical ‘Hamilton‘ debuted on Broadway and took the entertainment world by storm. For approximately two-and-a-half hours, the life of one of the United States’ most prolific writer, statesman, politician, and public servant was thrust into the spotlight and viewed like never before. Critics from the artistic and academic communities exhausted their energies reviewing the powerful impact of the music, lyrics, and imagery that chronicled the rise, reign, and legacy of Alexander Hamilton. Lin-Manuel Miranda commented that while on vacation, he obtained a copy of the Hamilton biography by the historian Ron Chernow and within a short time, Miranda contemplated on how Hamilton’s life could be conveyed through song. The end result? A musical that set a new golden standard for Broadway.

Alexander Hamilton didn’t deserve to languish in historical obscurity following his meteoric rise and infamous end according to Chernow. In the meticulous biography ‘Alexander Hamilton’, the reader plunges into the chaotic colonial life of the Caribbean, the American Revolution, and the formative years of the early United States republic. As any historian of the period can tell you, these were tumultuous times for the country as people wrestled to capitalize on their newfound freedoms and political leaders dueled in the most vicious partisan rhetoric. All the while, leaders are trying to make their democratic experiment flourish with Europe standing as witness. ‘Alexander Hamilton’ blends the biographical with the historical and interspersed with facts are eloquent asides showing Hamilton’s humanity and enigmatic personality. Chernow’s crusade into debunking the myths sheds light on the man who arguably saved the country’s financial institutions and defended the Constitution to his dying breath.

John Trumbull portrait of Alexander Hamilton, circa 1805

Hamilton’s celebrity life was a far cry from his origins. Chernow’s labor intensive research on Caribbean primary sources explores Hamilton’s ancestry between his mother, Rachel Faucette, and father James A. Hamilton. His mother’s life was hellish and inflated charges of infidelity and bigamy branded her children as bastards; a mark that Hamilton would zealously conceal throughout life. At first he tried to build some form of paternal relationship with James, but contact between the two men degraded until nothing was left to be said between them. His illegitimate origins extends to his birthday; it’s unsure whether he was born in 1755 or 1757. Chernow and other historians speculate that he changed his age to be accepted into college and the armed forces. What we do know is that from the moment he could walk and talk, he possessed a fiery drive to learn, apply, and improve his station and the world around him. The idyllic tropical life in the Caribbean was a glossy facade on the brutal world of slave labor and class stratification that defined Hamilton’s views on slavery, individual rights, and the importance of commerce. He criticized merchant ship captains for not providing adequate protection against pirates during his job as a shipping clerk (talk about confrontational). When reading about his childhood, it’s hard not to weep at the harsh predicaments of his mother or tricksters that conned their way through Hamilton’s family. This is one origin story that gets overlooked in the traditional historiography of America’s Founding Fathers, but one we should take to heart as it defined the man who shot right to the top. With a little help from his friends, Hamilton received the funds to travel to Boston and made his way to New York to become a new man.

New York became the center of Hamilton’s new world and quickly took advantage of his newfound surroundings. Enrolled at King’s College, he acquainted himself with members of the Sons of Liberty and other supporters of the American Revolution. The spirit of revolution presented a dual-blade personal controversy for Hamilton: he believed in the honorable causes of representative government, denounced unfair taxation, and liberty for all, but unfettered mob mentality and anarchistic violence would destroy the very same causes he championed. Hamilton internalized this belief and defined his course of action with the future establishment of the U.S. Constitution and the Treasury Department. There had to be order, not mayhem, for democracy to function.

Alexander Hamilton in uniform with the New York Artillery. Military duty was a glorious endeavor for Hamilton, who began his service with local militia units and eventually secured an aide-de-camp position with General George Washington.

What many people forget in traditional historiography was that Hamilton served as the right hand man of George Washington during the Revolution. Chernow covers Hamilton’s military service in exacting detail by elevating the importance of Hamilton’s writing and eloquence in addressing the Continental Congress. Washington’s army suffered from chronic shortages of food, ammunition, clothing, and Hamilton drafted letter after letter urging for the desperately needed supplies. Chernow spends a majority of the Revolution chapters focusing on this special kinship between Washington and Hamilton, but the conflict produced other valuable friendships with figures such as the Marquis de Lafayette, John Laurens, John Jay, and Aaron Burr. For the duration of his position in Washington’s general staff, Hamilton begged for a field command; leading his own troops into honorable, battlefield glory. He was finally given command over a handful of battalions during the final Siege of Yorktown in 1781 and witnessed the collapse of the British army and General Cornwallis’ surrender. In the famous John Trumbull painting of Cornwallis’ surrender, on the right, standing to the far left in the line of officers is Hamilton clutching his sword, and looking on as the British file out past the combined French and U.S. officers. Now that the nation fought victoriously for independence, now began the task of building a government. A task that Alexander Hamilton eagerly confronted.

The Surrender of Cornwallis by John Trumbull, circa 1820. Key figures of the American Revolution are in this painting (George Washington, mounted on the horse to the immediate left of the U.S. flag. The Marquis de Lafayette, on the right side, second from the left in the line of officers next to the U.S. flag. Alexander Hamilton, also on the right side, standing on foot furthest to the left, and his friend John Laurens standing to Hamilton’s immediate left.)

Before reviewing the mammoth chapters encompassing Hamilton’s role in the Constitutional Convention, tenure in the Treasury Department, and illustrious private law practice, it’s important to mention the personal relationships that Hamilton developed, including his wife, Eliza, and sister-in-law, Angelica. When one watches the Hamilton musical, initial thoughts analyzing the connection between Angelica and Alexander lead to the conviction they pursued an affair; they would never be satisfied. Chernow argues repeatedly that while they had an intimate connection, it never ventured into the physical realm. Contemporary gossip spread a plethora of rumors that they were lovers, but Chernow makes a compelling argument that only maintained ‘a friendship of unusual ardor.’ Hamilton’s unquestionable love was Elizabeth Schuyler. Their relationship began during his service on Washington’s staff and he was so taken with her that its said that he forgot the password back to the officers quarters. Their courtship lasted roughly a year and they married on December 14, 1780. For the nomadic Hamilton, Chernow marks this celebration as a major turning point in his life. With the loss of paternal and maternal figures, home abandonment, and the constant reminder of his illegitimate heritage, there was always uncertainty over where he belonged. From that day forward, Hamilton felt grounded with a family, with security, and finally starting his own dynasty. Eliza shared much of Hamilton’s personality; a powerful drive for knowledge and love for helping others. Their marriage was a bedrock that buoyed them through sad times and Chernow makes it clear through vast correspondence and personal documents that Eliza and Hamilton’s affection never wavered throughout their 24 years together.

Elizabeth Hamilton, nee Schuyler circa 1787. Elizabeth came from the illustrious and wealthy Schuyler family, an old Dutch dynasty that lived in New York for over a hundred years prior to the Revolution. She and Alexander would eventually have eight children together: Philip, Angelica, Alexander Jr., James, John, William, Eliza, and Philip II

‘Alexander Hamilton’ certainly combs every facet of the subject’s life in a manner that if reviewed in every way here, this post would go on for another 20,000 words. In summation, it behooves to say that Hamilton never stayed put or calmed himself in any fashion. After returning to New York in 1783, he began a private law practice defending remaining Loyalist and Tories who had their properties violated during the war. A year later he founded the Bank of New York, then restored King’s College now renamed Columbia College and all the while, he orchestrated plans to convene the Constitutional Convention and push for restructuring the country’s finances and reinvigorate commerce and legal justice. The chapters analyzing Hamilton’s time at the Constitutional Convention are not only physically immense, but historically also. A majority of anti-Hamilton rhetoric that swirled around his life and well after his death accused him of being a closet monarchist; a person who wanted a powerful tyrant in control of the government and individual rights were trampled. After all, he argued cases before the New York Supreme Court on behalf of Tories and created quasi-aristocratic institutions (the Bank of New York and the fraternal military order, the Society of the Cincinnati). Plus his views on having a President-for-Life and Senators-for-Life only lent credence to this monarchist speculation. Rather than debunk these accusation, Chernow makes a slightly different approach; rather than vilify the haters, he deconstructs Hamilton’s statements and places them in the larger context of how divisions between supporters of central government emerged. There was no denying what Hamilton said, but his intentions were seen through in building a strong governing body where rights were guaranteed by the government. He wanted people to be held accountable for their actions in public office, but seemed to favor it more as a personal choice rather than face investigation and criticism from other departments and branches.

Despite some reservations with the proposed Constitution, Hamilton embarked on the massive writing campaign that modern historians claim was the key to ratifying the document; the Federalist Papers. Hamilton’s exemplary skills as a writer and orator are unchallenged according to Chernow and he cites it magnificently in this book. The power or argument and persuasion were the tools to achieve great respect, power, and achievement for Hamilton and many of his contemporaries would extol his writing prowess. When he produced fifty-one essays for the Federalist Papers, Chernow frames the works not only as a testament of Hamilton’s skills, but as a cunning approach to win over undecided supporters and subsequently dismantle the previous confederation that proved too weak to handle the demands of a central government. The impact of Hamilton’s literary skills resonate within the early years of the United States and much of his writing is still cited today for arguing cases with the federal government, including the Federalist Papers.

Official portrait of Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury from 1789 to 1795 (Bureau of Printing and Engraving)

As the first Secretary of the Treasury Department appointed by George Washington, Hamilton inherited a country in financial shambles. Farms and businesses were lost during the Revolution, state debts ballooned, back pay for the military was halted, and each state suffered from inflation affecting their respective currencies. Here is where traditional historiography on Hamilton’s achievements with the federal government emerges; even Chernow admits this is where the history is recorded, but not all of it was spared from the continual vitriol that Hamilton’s opponents spewed at him. Here we see the machine-link energy characterized him as a relentless public servant using government to improve the lives of the people: establishing public credit, creating the National Bank, the U.S. Mint, and the Revenue Cutter Service (known today as the U.S. Coast Guard). His proclamations, Reports on Public Credit, Report on a National Bank, and Report of Manufactures, shaped economic policy by covering topics from public debt to designing gold coins. Not every proposal Hamilton put forth received ringing endorsements however. His revenue plan including a whiskey tax was poorly received, resulting in the Whiskey Rebellion. This crisis was significant not only for asserting government control on domestic economic issues, but for strengthening Hamilton’s friendship with President Washington. Since their army days, Washington and Hamilton were close friends, almost serving as a counterbalance to each other’s shortcomings as Chernow describes. This was critical for Hamilton as he positioned himself in close proximity to great political power and economic influence. That same closeness made him the target of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the Democratic-Republican acolytes. Partisan politics between the two men festered into the national audience and their rivalry became one of the most well-documented contests in early U.S. political history. What Chernow provides in addition to the insights of the Hamilton-Jefferson rivalry is how Hamilton was able to balance the weight of public scrutiny with his personal realm and commit to his children and Eliza. Despite always working and writing like he’s running out of time, he always made time for his family. ‘Alexander Hamilton’ describes not only his accolades and political victories, but the darker stains contrasting his impeccable public face.

The scandalous Reynolds Pamphlet written by Hamilton. Responding to allegations of wrongdoing in the Treasury Department, he provided evidence exonerating him from financial crimes, but openly admitted and apologized for having an affair with Maria Reynolds. The first political sex scandal in the first few years of the new republic.

In 1791, Hamilton and a woman named Maria Reynolds began an illicit affair that lasted for six years and when it became publicly known, it was the first sex scandal that the country faced from its new government. The biography’s chapters outlining the affair are a combination of searching for reasons behind why it started and how it affected Hamilton’s public and private life. For someone like Hamilton, Chernow recognized the contrary behavior that seems out of place for his character and personality. Hamilton prided himself on acting justly to both man’s and God’s laws, so why did this affair happen? What we know from the research is that Hamilton succumbed to his own frailty for women in dire situations and that Maria was engaged in a long-term extortion racket with her husband James (Yes, she was a married woman, making the scandal all the more, scandalous). Chernow speculates that once James realized potential blow-back if the story became public, receiving ‘loans’ from Hamilton was too good of an opportunity to connect with a high-profile figure. Years later when Hamilton faced charges of speculation and misuse of his federal office, he revealed the affair by showing his checkbook of payments to James Reynolds instead of financial speculators his enemies had hoped to find. To preempt any more rumors, enter the Reynolds Pamphlet; a hundred page booklet that detailed the entire affair. Eliza forgave Alexander, but it took years and the Democratic-Republicans used the affair as political fodder at every opportunity.

Washington’s departure from office did not end Hamilton’s influence in the Cabinet. President John Adams heavily resented the fact that his department heads were under Hamilton’s sway, shuttling his ideas through Adams’ administration policy. Timothy Pickering and James McHenry felt the full force of Adams’ wrath at discovering this ideological betrayal by sacking them both. Chernow examines the 1796-1800 time period by delivering analogous comparisons between British and French sentiments in the United States. Opposing views on fulfilling promises made during the American Revolution to the French; who were now engaged in their own albeit bloodier, more anarchistic revolution, intensified partisan divisions in the U.S. government. These splits are eloquently analyzed by Chernow to show how Hamilton began to slip from being the political prodigy and slump into a more reserved status of an elder politician and shadow adviser. His writing skills never wavered, but Chernow recognizes that Hamilton’s infinite enery reserves were running low (his eldest son Philip was killed in a duel in 1801, facilitating depression that Chernow claims Hamitlon never fully recovered from). The crisis in American government devolved into bitter political partisanship and Hamilton was no exception when it came to expressing his ire for both Democratic-Republicans and his own Federalist party. By the 1800 election, Hamilton endorsed Thomas Jefferson for President, disavowing Aaron Burr as the greater evil; someone who held no solid principles and exploited situations for personal and political gain.

Portrait of Aaron Burr. Burr served as Vice President from 1801-1805, but his failed bid for Governor of New York led him to challenge Hamilton to a duel

Burr reappears throughout the biography as this counterbalance to Chernow’s Hamilton. Whereas Hamilton was outwardly expressive and courted challenges in public, Burr shied away from confrontation in many respects, but always felt that others challenged and belittled him. Contemporary readers might classify him with an INFJ personality type. He and Hamilton both served in the Continental Army, practiced law, and partnered with him on numerous public works in New York. The antagonism however lay with their interpretation of federal government power. Burr’s machinations with New York politics made him a prominent figure, but Chernow revives many of the same suspicions that Hamilton and other Federalists harbored about him. There were accusations of subverting legal codes, using public works for personal gain, and in general just acting dishonorably (see the Manhattan Company water controversy). Popular historical legend tells that Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel following Burr’s loss to Thomas Jefferson, but in Chernow’s writing, the more likely tipping point occurred during the New York 1804 gubernatorial election. The two men already had their public disputes beginning in 1800 while Burr engaged in the first public election campaign and conversations in New York political society alleged that Hamilton consistently degraded him, resulting in his loss. This makes sense as Burr had been ousted from the White House by President Jefferson and all his remaining political capital in his home state was expended. Burr found himself without prospects for almost any political office now.

Duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. After the painting by J. Mund.

The fateful duel ignited an internal conflict within Hamilton unlike anything he ever experienced. He abhorred the dueling ritual since his son Philip was killed in one years earlier. His family’s welfare was put at risk because of the possibility of his death. However, Chernow recognized that Hamilton felt honor bound to address the infraction and he couldn’t argue the fact that he made negative remarks about Burr long before the 1804 election. One the fateful day of July 11, 1804, the two men left Manhattan for Weehawken New Jersey with their seconds (witnesses) and a physician. Differing accounts as to who shot first have survived through the generations (maybe the inspiration for Han Solo in the Mos Eisley Cantina?) and historians, including Chernow, have argued this point over who had the most to gain from the duel. Did Burr know that Hamilton would throw away his shot, thus giving him time to aim precisely? Did Hamilton grossly miss and that’s when Burr took his shot? Witnesses agree that both men shot, but others disagree on the time lapse between each. Personal writings by the duelists illustrate their own desires for shooting; Burr was blatant in his desire to shoot to kill, but Hamilton was more complex in his stated beliefs and intentions. It’s really up to the interpretation of the reader; Chernow delivers a compelling argument that Hamilton agreed to the duel to address attacks on his honor, but he couldn’t overcome the sin of murder. Hamilton was carried back to New York where he died the on July 12, 1804.

The biography’s physical size is itself a testament to the precise, detailed, and all-encompassing research that Chernow delivers on the life of one of country’s most accomplished, self-made men. Whether you examine ‘Alexander Hamilton’ from a political, economic, or biographical lens, there was no doubt that this American autodidact shaped government theory, set legal and economic precedence, and saw the American Revolution within himself; a young, scrappy, and hungry force meant for a greatness.

Statue of Alexander Hamilton, erected by Carl Conrads in Central Park

Semper Paratus: Requesting U.S. Coast Guard Medals (Special Edition)

When you ask someone ‘what branches make up the U.S. Armed Forces?’ they’ll typically answer ‘Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines’ but one that they’ll routinely forget is the U.S. Coast Guard. Indeed the Coast Guard is a service branch of the Armed Forces, but it can be overlooked occasionally. However, the U.S. Coast Guard has been in existence since the country’s founding and was championed by a notable Founding Father: Alexander Hamilton. A coastal defense and maritime law enforcement branch was personal for Hamilton, stretching back to his early days in the Caribbean when he worked for a shipping firm. Pirate raids and privateers were a constant nuisance for merchant vessels so creating a service designed specifically for coastal defense and law enforcement at sea was critical. Originally, named the Revenue-Marine, it became the Revenue Cutter Service, and following a merger with the U.S. Life Saving Service under the 1915 Coast Guard Act, the modern U.S. Coast Guard was born.

Seal of the United States Revenue Cutter Service (image courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard)

If you’ve read the preceding articles about awards and decorations for the Armed Forces, it was numbered to focus on the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. So why is this post about the Coast Guard labeled ‘special edition’? Concerning awards and medals, the Coast Guard has a special distinction that none of the other service branches can claim: only one Coast Guard service member was awarded the Medal of Honor and no member has received the second-highest medal, the Coast Guard Cross. We’ll go over those in a bit!

Requesting Coast Guard awards and decorations works similarly to the Navy and Marine Corps process outlined in the previous post (Meritorious Service).  The veteran’s Official Military Personnel Folder is reviewed by a technician at the National Personnel Records Center and then forwarded to the service branch personnel center. For the Coast Guard, this would be the Commander, Personnel Service Center in Washington D.C. There is however one important caveat to note with the Coast Guard: records are not cross-checked with lists of ship unit awards or combat actions. The technician only completes a medals request with those awards expressly noted in the service record. If a veteran believes they are entitled to an award that is not listed in their record, that request is forwarded to the service branch for verification.

Now onto the two great distinctions for the Coast Guard! During wartime, the Coast Guard transfers personnel and operations to the Department of the Navy. This has only been performed twice, during World War I and World War II by presidential order. During peacetime, the Coast Guard is under the authority of the Department of Homeland Security (before that it was the Department of Transportation, and prior to that it was the Department of the Treasury). Coast Guard members are eligible to receive Navy medals, but beginning in the late 1940s, Congress established Coast Guard versions of Navy medals to make them eligible for those service members:

  1. The Coast Guard Distinguished Service Medal: equivalent to the Navy, Air Force, and Army Distinguished Service Medal
  2. Coast Guard Medal: equivalent to the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, Army’s Soldier’s Medal, and the Airman’s Medal
  3. Commendation and Achievement medals were also established and based on existing versions of the aforementioned awards.
  4. The Lifesaving Medal is the oldest award within the Coast Guard that is still active. The medal (divided into two awards, the Gold and Silver Lifesaving Medal) is given to those rescuing people from dangerous waters. The medal was created in 1874 and the higher of the two, the Gold Medal, has only been awarded about 600 times. Technically it is not considered a military decoration and can be awarded to the public also.

On October 15 2010, Congress passed Public Law 111-281 establishing the Coast Guard Cross. The newest award was created equivalent to the Navy Cross and is given to service members who perform extraordinary acts of heroism that do not merit the Medal of Honor. The award is meant to acknowledge those distinguishing acts while serving in only a Coast Guard capacity. Despite the award being nearly 10 years old, the Coast Guard Cross has never been awarded. Not even once.

The Coast Guard Cross. The reverse side of the medal reads ‘For Valor’  (image courtesy of the U.S. Army Institute of Heraldry)

Onto the second distinction! During the Second Battle of Matanikau in the Guadalcanal Campaign of World War II, Signalman 1st Class Douglas Albert Munro used his Higgins landing craft to shield Marines that were redeploying under heavy fire from the Japanese. Leading up to the battle, Munro and his shipmate Raymond Evans were stationed at Naval Operating Base Cactus conducting support operations for the Navy and Marine Corps. On September 27, 1942, the Marines were ordered to attack Japanese positions on the Matanikau River and Munro was placed in charge of landing craft and Higgins boats sending Marines to their positions. While ferrying injured Marines back and forth, the Marines at Matanikau faced a counter-offensive and were in danger of being overrun. Munro quickly returned to the beach and laid suppressing fire on the enemy while Marines boarded the landing  craft and waited until all were secure. A couple of the landing crafts became stuck on sandbars near the beach and Munro directed other boats to move in and pick up any remaining Marines. It was at this moment that Munro was shot in the head. Evans held  Munro as he was dying and before he finally died, Munro asked if all the Marines made it out safely and smiled when Evans nodded yes.

News of Munro’s heroism reached back to the United States. Munro was immediately awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor presented to his family at the White House by President Franklin Roosevelt. The citation reads:

“For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous gallantry in action above and beyond the call of duty as Officer-in-Charge of a group of Higgins boats, engaged in the evacuation of a Battalion of Marines trapped by enemy Japanese forces at Point Cruz, Guadalcanal, on September 27, 1942. After making preliminary plans for the evacuation of nearly 500 beleaguered Marines, Munro, under constant risk of his life, daringly led five of his small craft toward the shore. As he closed the beach, he signaled the others to land, and then in order to draw the enemy’s fire and protect the heavily loaded boats, he valiantly placed his craft with its two small guns as a shield between the beachhead and the Japanese. When the perilous task of evacuation was nearly completed, Munro was killed by enemy fire, but his crew, two of whom were wounded, carried on until the last boat had loaded and cleared the beach. By his outstanding leadership, expert planning, and dauntless devotion to duty, he and his courageous comrades undoubtedly saved the lives of many who otherwise would have perished. He gallantly gave up his life in defense of his country.”

-Medal of Honor Citation for Signalman 1st Class Douglas Albert Munro

Munro’s name has been memorialized in Coast Guard vessels, facilities, monuments, VFW Posts, scholarships, and as of today is the only non-Marine to be listed in the National Museum of the Marine Corps’ Wall of Heroes. Memorial observances are held at the Coast Guard Training Center at Cape May annually with new recruits.

Douglas A. Munro Covers the Withdrawal of the 7th Marines at Guadalcanal, (1989) by Bernard D’Andrea

The U.S. Coast Guard has an incredible history and reading material about the early days of the Revenue-Marine, Revenue Cutter Service, and the U.S. Life Saving Service is extensive. For more information about the Coast Guard and its award and decorations, visit the Coast Guard’s Personnel Services Division.

Gallantry and Valor: Requesting Military Medals (1 of 4)

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.

Doris Miller received the Navy Cross for his heroism and courage during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He was the first African-American to be awarded the Navy Cross, the second highest award in the Navy (Photograph of Doris Miller Showing Navy Cross Received in Ceremony at Pearl Harbor, 12/7/1941, General Records of the Department of the Navy, 1804 – 1983, NARA)

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:

  1. Personal decorations: awards for gallantry, distinguished service, heroism, commendation, achievements, and meritorious service.
  2. Unit awards: given to all members of a military unit who participated in action within a specific time frame.
  3. Service awards: given to those with exemplary actions and personal achievement during active duty service.
  4. Campaign awards: given those that participated in a designated military action within the duration of a campaign against a hostile enemy force.
  5. Training ribbons: awarded to individuals that excelled in basic training courses and graduated from training schools with honors.
  6. 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.

Ribbon rack of a U.S. Army veteran who served in Vietnam. From top to bottom, left to right: Silver Star, Soldier’s Medal, Purple Heart, Army Commendation Medal, Army Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with three bronze stars, Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Unit Palm Citation, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with 1960 device (created for educational purposes only, not from an OMPF)

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Numerals: similar to the oak leaf cluster, numerals are used to indicate multiple issuance of a specific award.
  4. “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.
  5. Loops: indicates multiple issuance of the Good Conduct Medal.
  6. Arrowhead device: awarded to service members who participated in an assault, combat jump, or first amphibious landing.

Ribbon rack of a U.S. Navy veteran that served in the Korean War. From top to bottom, left to right: Combat Action Ribbon, Navy Presidential Unit Citation, Navy Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Korean Service Medal with two bronze service stars, Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation, United Nations Service Medal (created for educational purposes only, not from an OMPF)

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.

U.S. Army marksmanship badges; Expert, Sharpshooter, and Marksman, plus a weapon bar.

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.

Combat Infantryman Badge

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.

George C. Scott as General Patton, standing in front the U.S. flag, the iconic image from the 1970 film ‘Patton’