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Every Medal and Ribbon the US Military Awards, Ranked by Honor

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The United States military awards a variety of medals to its service members in recognition of their achievements and sacrifices. These medals come in different types and are awarded for different actions or accomplishments. The highest among these is the Medal of Honor that was most recently awarded to Paris Davis in March 2023 for his service in the Vietnam War. However, this is one of many awards that are issued across all US military branches. (These are the most prestigious medals and honors of the United States military.)  

Using Military-Ranks.org’s database of Military Medals, 24/7 Wall St. listed the 29 types of medals and awards that members of the United States armed forces are eligible for. Some of these medals, such as the Coast Guard Cross, have not yet been awarded. Others, notably those that were awarded in recognition of service in particular American conflicts, will likely not be awarded again. 

We ranked these types of medals according to their precedence in an ascending order. Precedence refers to the honor and distinction signified by being awarded each medal. It also, according to military tradition, determines the order in which they are displayed on a service ribbon rack. Some of these medals are only issued to one branch while others are issued to all military branches. We have included supplemental data from Military-Ranks on which branches issue each type of decoration and an example of one and how that example would be earned. Notably, the Space Force is not included in this list, as no Space Force member has yet received an award.

After the Medal of Honor, the award bestowing the highest honor in the U.S. military is the Service Cross. Each branch awards this medal for actions of extreme gallantry and risk of life in actual combat against an enemy armed force.

There are a number of other medals ranging from Pistol Marksmanship to Prisoner of War, each individual medal representing exemplary achievement or incredible sacrifice. Here’s a look at the 29 types of medals awarded by the US military, ranked:

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

29. International Senior Military Award
> Issuing branch(s): Issuing branch(s): Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force
> Medals: Medal examples: Order of the Date Palm (Iraq), Order of National Security Merit (Korea), Order of the Rising Sun (Japan)

This group of medals are awarded to U.S. servicemen by the governments of other countries. One of these is the Korean Order of National Security Merit. The order is divided into five classes, and is awarded to those individuals who have rendered distinguished service to national security for the nation of South Korea.

28. International Award
> Issuing branch(s): Issuing branch(s): Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force
> Medals: Medal examples: United Nations Medal, NATO Medal (Yugoslavia), NATO Medal (Kosovo), Inter-American Defense Board Medal

International Awards are ribbons and medals given by foreign powers that are allies of the United States. The United Nations Medal, for example, is an international decoration awarded by the United Nation to military servicemen across the world for participation in joint international military and police operations such as peacekeeping, humanitarian efforts, and disaster relief.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

27. Pistol Marksmanship Award
> Issuing branch(s): Issuing branch(s): Navy, Coast Guard
> Medals: Medal examples: Navy Expert Pistol Shot Award, Coast Guard Pistol Marksmanship Ribbon with Sharpshooter Device

In 1884, the US Secretary of War established the “distinguished class” of marksman, followed in 1887 by the first Distinguished Marksman Badge to honor those who achieved this status with the rifle, carbine, revolver, or a combination. Later in 1903, the Distinguished Pistol Shot Badge was created, which was the highest award for pistol marksmanship in the US military until 1962. In order to achieve “distinguished status” and receive one of these badges, US Coast Guardsmen must earn at least 30 leg points, which are accumulated over a competitor’s lifetime.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

26. Rifle Marksmanship Award
> Issuing branch(s): Issuing branch(s): Navy, Coast Guard
> Medals: Medal examples: Coast Guard Silver Rifle Excellence-in-Competition Award, Navy Expert Rifleman Medal, Navy Rifle Marksmanship Ribbon with Sharpshooter Device

Rifle marksmanship awards are given for scoring expert on a rifle which is a certain amount depending on each specific branch. For example, the Coast Guard Rifle Marksmanship ribbon is awarded to personnel who qualify at the Marksman level over a course of fire prescribed by regulations. The current qualifying rifles are the M16 or M4.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

25. Marksmanship Award
> Issuing branch(s): Issuing branch(s): Air Force
> Medals: Medal examples: Air Force Small Arms Expert Marksmanship Ribbon

The Air Force Small Arms Expert Marksmanship Ribbon (SAEMR) was authorized in 1962. It is awarded to all Air Force service members who qualify as “Expert” in small-arms marksmanship with either the M-16 rifle or standard issue handgun.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

24. Professional Development Ribbon
> Issuing branch(s): Issuing branch(s): Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard
> Medals: Medal examples: Army NCO Professional Development Ribbon, Air Force Basic Military Training Honor Graduate Ribbon

Professional development ribbons are awards given to members of the U.S. military who have achieved sanctioned academic achievements like NCO school or Professional Development Education courses.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

23. Guard Ribbon
> Issuing branch(s): Issuing branch(s): Navy, Marines
> Medals: Medal examples: Navy Ceremonial Guard Ribbon, Marine Corps Security Guard Ribbon

Guard ribbons are specific medals that are earned by participation and mobilization in a branch’s guard component. These can range from specific awards given for actions while acting in a guard capacity to recognizing participation in mobilizations or deployments outside their normal duties. One example, the Marine Corps Security Guard Ribbon, is a U.S Marine Corps military award that was established in 1997. It recognizes Marine Corps personnel who have served as U.S. Embassy Security Guards and is retroactive to 1949.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

22. Training Service Ribbon
> Issuing branch(s): Issuing branch(s): Navy, Marines, Air Force
> Medals: Medal examples: Navy Recruit Training Service Ribbon, Marine Corps Drill Instructor Ribbon, Marine Corps Combat Instructor Ribbon

Training service ribbons are special ribbons that recognize members of branches who have acted as trainers at basic training or tech schools for their own branch. The Marine Corps Combat Instructor Ribbon is a military award of the United States Marine Corps established in August 2014. The ribbon acknowledges completion of a tour as a combat instructor or leadership role at the School of Infantry.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

21. Recruiting Service Ribbon
> Issuing branch(s): Issuing branch(s): Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard
> Medals: Medal examples: Air Force Recruiter Ribbon, Marine Corps Recruiting Ribbon

Recruiting service ribbons are special ribbons that recognize members of branches who have acted as a recruiter for their own branch.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

20. General Service Award
> Issuing branch(s): Issuing branch(s): Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard
> Medals: Medal examples: Army Sea Duty Ribbon, Navy Arctic Service Ribbon, Air Force Overseas Long Tour Service Ribbon

The General Service Awards are medals issued by the various U.S. military branches to recognize military personnel who have served in various roles, with separate medals for domestic and overseas service. General Service Medals are for simple acts that stand out above the normal duty but not in the level that meet the other service medals.

19. Campaign Medal
> Issuing branch(s): Issuing branch(s): Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard
> Medals: Medal examples: Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal

Campaign medals are specialized medals designed to commemorate authorized military operations, such as the recent conflict in Iraq. These medals serve as a form of recognition for military personnel who contributed to these campaigns, either in an active or supporting role. Their purpose is to acknowledge the sacrifices and efforts of those who served in these theaters of war.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

18. Special Service Medal
> Issuing branch(s): Issuing branch(s): Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard
> Medals: Medal examples: Antarctica Service Medal, Air and Space Campaign Medal, Nuclear Deterrence Operations Service Medal

Special medals are created to represent special and unique achievements that are either hard to get or unique, like the Antarctica Service Medal or the Air and Space Campaign Medal. There are different types of Special Service Medals, such as the Antarctica Service Medal and the Air and Space Campaign Medal.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

17. General Service Medal
> Issuing branch(s): Issuing branch(s): Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard
> Medals: Medal examples: National Defense Service Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Korea Defense Service Medal

General service medals are awarded to anyone who has served on active duty in the United States Armed Forces during either the Korean War, Vietnam War, Persian Gulf War, and the Global War on Terrorism.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

16. Occupation Medal
> Issuing branch(s): Issuing branch(s): Army, Navy, Marines
> Medals: Medal examples: Army of Occupation Medal, Navy Occupation Service Medal

The Occupation Medal was created to recognize the soldiers who participated in World War II. It was issued from 1945 to 1990. Occupation medals were the precursor to the expeditionary and campaign medals the U.S. Military would use later.

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15. Expeditionary Medal
> Issuing branch(s): Issuing branch(s): Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard
> Medals: Medal examples: Navy Expeditionary Medal, Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal

Expeditionary medals are a series of medals that are given to U.S. Armed Forces members for actions that take place in a foreign theater against an enemy force. This award is usually not a combat award but is given to those who have served a stated period of time where hazard pay or hostile fire pay is included.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

14. Reserve Medal
> Issuing branch(s): Issuing branch(s): Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard
> Medals: Medal examples: Army Reserve Components Achievement Medal, Naval Reserve Meritorious Service Medal, Selected Marine Corps Reserve Medal

Reserve medals are specific medals that are earned by participation and mobilization in a branch’s Reserve component. These can range from specific awards given for actions while acting in a reserve capacity to recognizing participation in mobilizations or deployments outside their normal duties.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

13. Good Conduct Medal
> Issuing branch(s): Issuing branch(s): Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard
> Medals: Medal examples: Army Good Conduct Medal, Outstanding Airman of the Year Ribbon, Combat Readiness Medal (Air Force)

The various medals and awards included in the Good Conduct Medal reward soldiers who have served honorably and faithfully for a set period of time. The medals are awarded to soldiers who have displayed exemplary behavior during their service. This category also includes special awards like the Outstanding Airman of the Year Ribbon.

12. Prisoner of War Medal
> Issuing branch(s): Issuing branch(s): Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard
> Medals: Medal examples: Prisoner of War Medal

The Prisoner of War Medal is an esteemed military accolade granted to individuals who have experienced time in captivity as prisoners of war. President Ronald Reagan established this recognition in November 1985 to pay tribute to those who have been held captive by opposing forces during times of war. The Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard all award this medal as a testament to the sacrifices and hardships endured by prisoners of war.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

11. Efficiency Award
> Issuing branch(s): Issuing branch(s): Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard
> Medals: Medal examples: Navy “E” Ribbon, Air Force Organizational Excellence Award, Coast Guard “E” Ribbon

Efficiency Awards are medals issued by the Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard. The E ribbons are given to service members who have earned the Occupational Excellence Award during their training.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

10. Meritorious Unit Commendation
> Issuing branch(s): Issuing branch(s): Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard
> Medals: Medal examples: Army Meritorious Unit Commendation, Navy Meritorious Unit Commendation, Air Force Meritorious Unit Award, Coast Guard Meritorious Unit Commendation, Army Superior Unit Award

The Meritorious Unit Commendations aremedal that can be issued by the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard to an entire unit that doesn’t merit a presidential unit citation. These medals are given to units who have shown exceptional conduct in either combat or non-combat situations. They can be issued for multiple reasons, including assisting in a national disaster to the unit distinguishing itself in official inspections.

Source: sdasmarchives / Flickr

9. Presidential Unit Citation
> Issuing branch(s): Issuing branch(s): Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard
> Medals: Medal examples: Army and Air Force Presidential Unit Citation, Joint Meritorious Unit Award, Air Force Gallant Unit Citation

This medal category is awarded to U.S. military units, rather than individuals. The unit must display gallantry and determination in accomplishing its mission under highly difficult conditions.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

8. Combat Action Ribbon
> Issuing branch(s): Issuing branch(s): Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard
> Medals: Medal examples: Navy Combat Action Ribbon, Coast Guard Combat Action Ribbon, Air Force Combat Action Medal

The Combat Action Ribbon category is a medal that may be awarded to members of the Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard who have actively participated in ground or aerial combat. To be considered for a Combat Action Ribbon, evidence must establish the military member engaged the enemy, was under hostile fire, or attacked by the enemy. Simply being in an active combat zone isn’t enough to merit one of these medals.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

7. Achievement Medal
> Issuing branch(s): Issuing branch(s): Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard
> Medals: Medal examples: Joint Service Achievement Medal, Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, Commandant’s Letter of Commendation

The Achievement Medals are a military award that is issued by the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard. They are awarded to members of the Armed Forces of the United States who distinguish themselves by outstanding achievement or meritorious service that doesn’t quite constitute nomination for a commendation medal.

6. Commendation Medal
> Issuing branch(s): Issuing branch(s): Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard
> Medals: Medal examples: Joint Service Commendation Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Coast Guard Commendation Medal

Commendation Medals are issued by the Army, Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard. This medal category is awarded to members of the Armed Forces who distinguished themselves by meritorious achievement or service. One example, the Joint Service Commendation Medal was authorized in June 1963 and is senior in precedence to service-specific Commendation Medals.

The award category is given for achievements in non-combat situations that warrant more than an achievement medal but not as high as a Meritorious Service Medal. Often, this class of award is given to Non-Commissioned Officers.

5. Meritorious Service Medal
> Issuing branch(s): Issuing branch(s): Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard
> Medals: Medal examples: Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, Aerial Achievement Medal

The Meritorious Service Medal is a military award that is given to service members who display exemplary achievement or service. Issued by the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard, there are specific medals for each branch. Some examples of the different medals include the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, the Air Medal and the Aerial Achievement Medal. To be eligible for the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, one must complete duties with distinction on a joint assignment. Most often, this award is given to officers in pay grades O-4 and above.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

4. Non-Combat Heroism Medal
> Issuing branch(s): Issuing branch(s): Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard
> Medals: Medal examples: Soldier’s Medal, Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart

The Non-Combat Heroism Medal is issued by the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard. Despite the name, these medals are awarded to service members in a combat arena, but they are awarded for actions related to saving the lives of fellow soldiers, rather than taking the lives of enemies. The most well-known example is the Purple Heart.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

3. Distinguished Service Medal
> Issuing branch(s): Issuing branch(s): Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard
> Medals: Medal examples: Silver Star, Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit

These Distinguished Service Medals are awarded to members of the armed services for activities not quite sufficient to merit consideration for a service cross medal. One such medal, the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, is the highest honor that can be given to a member of the Armed Forces for non-combat related achievement.

Source: svengine / Getty Images

2. Service Cross Medal
> Issuing branch(s): Issuing branch(s): Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard
> Medals: Medal examples: Distinguished Service Cross (Army), Navy Cross, Air Force Cross

The Service Cross Medal is a military decoration that is issued by the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard. This medal is awarded to servicemen and women who distinguish themselves by their extraordinary heroism in combat against an armed enemy force. The actions that are being honored must be notable and involve a great risk of life in order to be considered for this medal.

Source: jetcityimage / iStock Editorial via Getty Images

1. Medal of Honor
> Issuing branch(s): Issuing branch(s): Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard
> Medals: Medal examples: Medal of Honor

The Medal of Honor is the United States’ highest and most prestigious military award. It is awarded to members of the armed forces who have distinguished themselves through acts of extraordinary heroism. There are just 65 living recipients of the award.

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