Napoleon wrote, “A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.” Wellington, Napoleon’s conqueror, introduced campaign medals to the British Army and the first went to troops who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. Both Napoleon and Wellington realized that decorations and medals express national gratitude and stimulate esprit de corps.
The history of military decorations in the United States began early in the American Revolution, when Congress voted to award gold medals to outstanding military leaders. The first medal was struck to honor George Washington for his service in driving the British from Boston in 1776. Similar medals were awarded to General Horatio Gates for his victory at the Battle of Saratoga and Captain John Paul Jones after his famous naval engagement with the Serapis in 1779. Unlike present practice, however, these were large presentation medals not designed to be worn on a uniform.
In 1780, the Congress of the United States created the Andre Medal, which, for the first time, broke the custom of restricting the awarding of medals to senior officers. It is doubly unique in that it was designed to be worn with the uniform as a neck decoration. The medal was awarded to three enlisted men who captured Major John Andre who had the plans of the West Point fortification in his boot. The medal commemorated the fidelity and patriotism of these three men.
In 1782, George Washington established the Badge of Military Merit, the first U.S. decoration that had general application to all enlisted men and was the forerunner of the Purple Heart Medal. Washington hoped that this would inaugurate a permanent awards system. Although special and commemorative military medals had been awarded previously, until this point no decoration had been established which honored the private soldier with an award of special merit. The object of the Badge of Military Merit was “to foster and encourage every species of military merit.” The medal was a heart of purple cloth or silk, edged with narrow lace or binding. Unfortunately, the award fell into disuse after the Revolution and disappeared for 150 years.
On the 200th anniversary of Washington’s birth, 22 February 1932, the Badge of Military merit was reborn as the Purple Heart. The Purple Heart took the heart shape of the earlier Badge of Military Merit with Washington’s profile on a purple background. The words “For Military Merit” appear on the reverse in reference to its predecessor.
During the Civil War the Medal of Honor was established and remained the only American military award until the Marine Corps authorized the Good Conduct Medal in 1896. It was not until the eve of the 20th Century that seven medals were authorized to commemorate the events surrounding the Spanish American War. One of these medals was to commemorate the victory of the naval forces under Commodore Dewey over the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay. This medal was awarded to all officers and enlisted personnel present during the expedition and became this Country’s first campaign medal.
When Theodore Roosevelt became President, he legislated the creation of medals to honor all those who had served in previous conflicts. By 1908, the United States had authorized campaign medals, some retroactive, for the Civil War, the Indian Wars, the Spanish American War, the Philippine Insurrection and the China Relief Expedition of 1900-01. The Services used the same ribbon, but different medals were struck for the Army and Navy. The custom of wearing the ribbons of the medals on a ribbon bar began during this period. The Army and the Navy used different precedence for wearing these ribbons, which established an independence in the creation and wearing of awards by each service that remains to this day.
At the time of the U.S. entry into World War I, the Medal of Honor, Certificate of Merit and the Navy/Marine Good Conduct Medals were the only personal decorations. In 1918, the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross and Navy Distinguished Service Medal were established. That same year, the law which prevented individuals from accepting foreign decorations, was rescinded. In 1919, the Navy created the Navy Cross and the Distinguished Service Medal for Navy and Marine personnel. The issuance of the Sampson Medal in 1898 established the practice of wearing clasps with the names of battles on the suspension ribbon, which was a practice in many countries.
In 1921, the Secretary of the Navy authorized the Brevet Medal for 20 officers whose commissions had been approved by Congress. Major General John A. Lejeune (Commandant of the Marine Corps 1920-29) felt that living officers who had received brevet commissions between 1861 and 1915 should receive a medal, in addition to their commissions, as a reward for heroism. This rarest of all U.S. decorations was already obsolete by the time it was approved. The Brevet commission lapsed into disuse in 1921.
On 8 September 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed a National Emergency and the first peacetime service award, the American Defense Service Medal, was established. At the beginning of World War II the United States increased the number of personal decorations as well as campaign medals. Since U.S. forces were serving all over the world, a campaign medal was established for each major theater. The three medals were American Campaign, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign and European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign. The World War I practice of using clasps to denote campaigns on the suspension ribbon was discarded in favor of three-sixteenth inch bronze stars.
Following World War II, the World War II Victory Medal and the Occupation Medals (for both Europe and Japan) were authorized. During the Korean Conflict the Korean Service Medal and the United Nations Service Medal were established along with the National Defense Service Medal. The National Defense Service Medal was also instituted during the Korean Conflict and later became our Country’s most awarded medal when it was reinstated for the Vietnam and Gulf Wars.
The first American Advisors in the Republic of South Vietnam were awarded the new Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal created in 1961 to cover campaigns for
which no specific medal was instituted. As U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia grew, the Vietnam Service Medal was authorized. Uniquely, the previous recipients of the Expeditionary medal were given the opportunity to decide which award to accept. The Department of Defense also authorized the acceptance of the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal by all who served six months in-theater or in the surrounding waters from July 1965 to March 1973.
During the Vietnam era, and immediately following, the Department of Defense developed several new decorations including the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the Defense Superior Service Medal and the Defense Meritorious Service Medal. Each of these awards was designed to recognize achievements of individuals assigned to the Office of the Secretary of Defense or other activities in the Department of Defense.
The Gulf War saw the reinstatement of the National Defense Service Medal (this time it also included the Reserves) and the creation of the Southwest Asia Service Medal. The Department of Defense also approved the acceptance and wearing of the Kuwait Liberation Medals awarded by Saudi Arabia and the Emirate of Kuwait.
During the 1990’s many Marines were awarded the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) Medal for service under NATO command or in direct support of NATO operations.
In 1995, the Marine Corps established the Marine Corps Recruiting Ribbon, and, in 1997, the Commandant approved the new Marine Corps Drill Instructor Ribbon and Marine Security Guard Ribbon.
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