I would like to know what types of duties you receive medals for. My students have also come up with some questions. What is the highest ranking Medal you can get? Are there different types of Medals for each branch of the military? For each task or assignment, would there be a different Medal of Honor? Do you know any resources (books, magazines, websites) we can use to further our research?
The highest medal an American Military person can get is the Medal of Honor. Some call it the Congressional Medal of Honor, but the proper name is just “Medal of Honor”. I suggest you read some of the citations for the Medal of Honor, you will be awed at what these men have done.
There are different types of medals for each branch of the military, as well as the Coast Guard. This gets a bit complicated at times. Think of the awarding of medals like a pyramid: the highest, the Medal of Honor, is at the top. Although each branch of the service has a differently designed MOH, they are the same award. Next down is the Distinguished Service Cross/Navy Cross/Air Force Cross. This is also a valor award. Following that is a whole slew of other medals awarded for “Meritorious performance of duty” that don’t necessarily involve combat. The next highest valor award is the Silver Star followed by the Bronze Star (with ‘V’ means Valor, without ‘V’ means meritorious service). Each branch then has its own Commendation medals, the Army Commendation Medal, Navy & Marine Corps Commendation Medal, Coast Guard Commendation Medal, and the Air Force Commendation Medal. These can also have a “V” attached, for Valor in combat. Lastly, there are the Achievement Medals, Army Achievement, Navy & Marine Corps Achievement, Air Force Achievement, Coast Guard Achievement medals. They can also have “V” affixed, denoting Valor.
Notice how the pyramid works – the braver the act, the higher the award. You don’t have to get the others to get the Medal of Honor. (Some countries do this, most notably Germany during WWII; but suffice to say a soldier had to earn each level of the pyramid before moving on to the next. The highest German medal, somewhat equivalents to our Medal of Honor, was the Knights Cross to the Iron Cross).
For each task or assignment, there would be only 1 Medal of Honor. However, there are very few people who have ever gotten a second Medal of Honor, and most of them were given out during the time period of the Civil War to World War 1. No second award of the Medal of Honor has been given since then. Usually, once someone wins the MOH, they are pulled from the combat zone.
The pyramid was instituted around the WWII time period, basically because it was felt that some acts of valor were of a higher level than others, and vice versa, so they needed a medal to recognize them. There is also the topic of Campaign Medals, awarded for participation in a certain action or theatre of operations. The WWII period produced 5 of these types of awards.
1. The American Defense Service Medal: basically awarded to draftees and volunteers who served prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor.
2-4. American Campaign, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign, and European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medals: Awarded for service in these theatres of war. The American Campaign medal was for service in the area of the United States
5. World War 2 Victory Medal: awarded to any serving member of the military during the time period of WWII.
Finally, as to awards, most veterans of WWII came home with at least 2 medals, usually more. Contrast this to today military, who typically sport 13-15 medals after a tour in the combat zone.
The medals/ribbons that a WWII Army veteran of the European Campaign would typically have. Good Conduct Medal (awarded for staying out of trouble for 3 years, not a valor award), European Campaign Medal, WWII Victory Medal. If the vet was an active infantryman (most guys were not, it takes about 100 men to support the guy with the rifle in the foxhole), he may have a Bronze Star (every Infantryman in WWII was issued a Bronze Star Medal in late 1944 for combat service). He would also have a Combat Infantryman Badge, which is a Kentucky flintlock rifle on a blue enamel background, surrounded by a wreath. This signified the man had been in combat. Chances are he may have a Purple Heart as well; this medal is awarded for wounds (or death) due to enemy action (you don’t have to be in the Infantry to get it).