Today being Veterans Day prompts me to explain a bit about some of the ribbons and decorations you might see on United States military uniforms. A full description of, and the criteria for, all authorized medals and ribbons would, and does, fill a book. In this article, I will refer only to the six basic service awards authorized since World War One. Where I name the award below as a medal, that is the official name of the award, but I will be referencing only the ribbons worn on the left chest of our uniforms.
Service ribbons, or ribbon bars, are small, usually multicolored strips of rayon mounted on metal bars equipped with attaching devices, and are generally issued for wear in place of medals. Each country’s government has its own rules on what ribbons can be worn in what circumstances, and in which order. This is defined in an official document and is called “the order of precedence”.
The World War I Victory Medal was awarded for honorable service for active duty at any time between 6 April 1917 and 11 November 1918. The ribbon is a beautiful rainbow colored award. It was not, by definition, a service ribbon but it was the first to be awarded to all personnel. Unfortunately, there are no longer any surviving American military veterans of “The Great War”, or, “The war to end all wars”.
The American Campaign Medal was instituted in 1942 and specifies service between 7 December 1941 and 2 March 1946, or anyone who was awarded a combat decoration while in combat against the enemy. The ACM specifies “Service outside the U.S. within the American Theater of Operations.” Although the American Defense Service Medal is senior to the ACM in precedence, it only covers a two year period from 1939 prior to 7 December 1941, and is “For active duty during national and limited emergencies just prior to WW II.”
The Korean Service Medal was awarded for participation in military operations within the Korean area during the period of 27 June 1950 and 27 July 1954. The service required was one or more days in the designated area while attached to or serving an organization or on a naval vessel that was participating in combat operations or in direct support of combat missions.
The Vietnam Service Medal’s criteria are service in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, or Thailand during the period of 3 July 1965 to 28 March 1973. It was awarded to all members of the Armed Forces who served in Vietnam and contiguous waters in direct support of operations in Vietnam. Individuals serving in the other three countries in direct support of operations in Vietnam during the same period are also eligible.
The Southwest Asia Service Medal is awarded for active participation in, or support of, Operation Desert Shield and/or Desert Storm. It is awarded to all members of the Armed Forces who participated in military operations, or in direct support of military operations in Southwest Asia and contiguous waters and airspace from 2 August 1990 to 30 November 1995.
The Global War on Terrorism Service Medal was instituted in 2004 and is awarded for active participation in, or service in support of operations relating to the Global War on Terrorism between September 11, 2001 and a date to be determined at a later date. Qualifying Service members must be assigned, attached or mobilized to a unit participating in, or service in direct support of, designated operations for 30 consecutive days or 60 nonconsecutive days.
Most people see a rack of ribbons on a uniform as just a bunch of meaningless colors. Veterans know this and forgive the lack of knowledge. What they really are is the wearer’s pedigree. Active duty military, as well as, Veterans might not know the meaning of all ribbons (there are nearly 100) but they recognize and respect the veteran wearing distinctive awards like the Bronze Star, Silver Star, Navy Cross and, with a certain degree of reverence, the Medal of Honor.
The Fenton History Center is looking for donations of the last four ribbons; Korea, Vietnam, Southwest Asia and the Global War on Terrorism to add to the collections. It would be wonderful to hear the stories associated with the time served by a local Veteran. Please contact the collections staff at the Fenton History Center to make your donation.