American military decorations (as we know them) have evolved over a period of more than one hundred and forty years. Interestingly, the system has been in a continuous process of defining itself downward during this period. It began with the establishment of the Medal of Honor during the Civil War, which itself got off to a confusing start. The next additions came prior to the First World War and included the Navy's Specially Meritorious Service Medal, 1898, and the Army's Certificate of Merit Medal, both of which are now obsolete. During and immediately after the First World War several important decorations were established. These included the Distinguished Service Cross, the Navy Cross, the Army and Navy Distinguished Service Medals, and the Silver Citation Star. During the period between the world wars, four new decorations were added (the now obsolete USMC Brevet Medal, the Soldier's Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Purple Heart). In addition, the Silver Citation Star was converted to the Silver Star medal. However, only one decoration (the Certificate of Merit Medal) was actually eliminated. More decorations were added during the Second World War, but the post-World War II era saw the greatest expansion of the system.
Military decorations recognize three broad categories of individual performance: heroism, outstanding achievement, and meritorious service. Ideally, any given decoration should only recognize one category; but unfortunately there has been considerable overlap, and that has resulted in no small degree of confusion and criticism. This has been especially so in the case of the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star Medal, and the Air Medal.
Heroism involves an act, or a series of acts, clearly above what is normally and reasonably expected under the circumstances, in which the failure to perform those acts would not subject the individual to criticism or censure. Heroism not only calls for action beyond what is normally expected, it also involves risk to the individual and a willing acceptance of that risk. This risk ranges from injury to death, and must be voluntarily accepted and clearly understood. Decorations awarded for heroism differ according to the nature and number of the act(s) performed, their difficulty and consequences, as well as the degree of risk involved. Other factors may also play a role; for example, whether the individual was wounded but continued to perform, and the level of responsibility the individual assumed relative to his normal rank and responsibilities.
Military decorations are selectively awarded for both combat and non-combat related heroism. Some may only be awarded for combat heroism, while others may only be awarded for non-combat heroism, and yet others may be awarded for either combat or non-combat heroism.
A Service member who performs his or her duties over a period of time, clearly and distinctively better than his peers, and beyond what is expectated also deserves recognition. However, for achievement to be outstanding there must be both a reasonable minimal expectation and a baseline that is demonstrably exceeded. This outstanding achievement should clearly distinguish the recipient from all others of comparable rank and experience who are faced with the same challenges. This achievement should be directly related to the person's duties and should not normally involve a voluntary assumption of risk. Although this seems clear when viewed in these terms, time and circumstances since the 1960's have played havoc with awards for outstanding achievement. This came about as a result of placing morale on a par with (or even ahead of) performance and currently reflected in policies that allow automatic virtually awards.
- DECORATIONS FOR OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT
When a Service member performs his or her duties in a manner fully consistent with what is expected, does that in and of itself warrant a decoration? Increasingly, since the 1960s the answer has been an emphatic "yes!" This began with routine or automatic awards in Vietnam that were given upon completion of a tour duty. The same concept now extends to military personnel whether they are serving in a combat theater or not. The majority of "meritorious service" decorations are typically awarded after the successful completion of a normal tour of duty and are referred to as "end of tour" awards. The policy on end-of-tour awards is not consistent among the Services, further clouding the issue.
Today military decorations are manufactured according to a detailed military specification sheet published by the Army's Institute of Heraldry. These detailed specifications set forth the physical characteristics of the medal and are issued to assure consistence in quality and appearance. In fact, when a medal is developed by the Institute of Heraldry, an example of the final approved, finished medal is retained in their archives as a "sealed sample." The sealed sample then becomes the standard of reference for that particular medal.
- DECORATIONS FOR MERITORIOUS SERVICE