Military Medals: What Do They Mean?

The United States military rewards many things, including superior achievement, dedication, conduct and bravery. Although many soldiers have earned Army Achievement Medals, Army Commendation Medals, Meritorious Service Medals and Good Conduct Medals, comparatively few have been recognized for bravery.

There are four main commendations awarded by the United States for bravery:
●    The Medal of Honor
●    The Distinguished Service Cross in all its variants
●    The Silver Star
●    The Bronze Star

The Purple Heart is an interesting case: It is awarded for being wounded in action against a belligerent enemy instead of in recognition of an action or actions. Because it is awarded for combat wounds, it essentially recognizes the soldier’s bravery—during today’s world of an all-volunteer military—for being in combat in the first place.

The Medal of Honor

Since the criteria of this highest award were tightened during World War I, it is given only to a soldier who “distinguishes him or herself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his or her life above and beyond the call of duty in action involving actual conflict with an enemy.” Usually, the President of the United States presents the award to the recipient or, if it is a posthumous award, to the recipient’s immediate family. There are only two ways a soldier can be recommended for this award: by someone in his or her immediate chain of command with direct knowledge of the soldier’s actions or by direction of the President of the United States.

The Distinguished Service Cross

There is a version of this medal for each of the armed forces of the United States, the Navy/Marine Corps equivalent is the Navy Cross.  The criteria are similar to those required by the Congressional Medal of Honor but do not meet the same level as actions that are “beyond the call of duty.” Several Distinguished Service Crosses have been revoked in the past for a variety of reasons. The most notable reason involved a case of six black soldiers who had received Distinguished Service Crosses for actions that merited a Medal of Honor. After a review lasting seven years, Congress awarded those soldiers their proper medals in 1997.

The Silver Star

The Silver Star is the third-highest award for bravery in the United States Armed Forces and, similar to the Distinguished Service Cross, is awarded for conduct that does not merit a higher award for bravery.

The Bronze Star

The Bronze Star can be awarded either for gallantry and heroism (in which case it carries the “V” device) or for outstandingly meritorious service in a combat zone. When awarded for bravery, its criteria are similar to those of the higher awards but such bravery does not meet the higher criteria. When awarded for meritorious service, it is the highest award other than the Legion of Merit that a soldier can earn.

A Famous Recipient

Audie Murphy is the most decorated United States soldier of all time. Astoundingly, he was awarded all five of these medals. In addition to his Medal of Honor, he received a Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, three Bronze Stars with “V” device, and three Purple Hearts. Then, he turned 20 years old.