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Symbols of Sacrifice: Military Medals and What They Mean

The three versions (Army, Navy, Air Force) of the Medal of Honor, which is the nation's highest military award for valor.
The three versions (Army, Navy, Air Force) of the Medal of Honor, which is the nation's highest military award for valor.

Military medals and ribbons are more than decorations. They are symbols of service, honor, commitment, and bravery. You can’t earn them without great sacrifice.

But have you ever wondered what those medals signify? Here’s a brief look at some military medals and honors a service member might receive.

Medal of Honor

The Medal of Honor is the highest military decoration awarded in the U.S. It is presented by the president in the name of Congress and awarded to members of the U.S. Armed Forces who distinguish themselves.

Awarded for: "Conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.”

There are three distinct versions of the award – one for the Army, one for the Air Force, and one for the Navy/Marine Corps/Coast Guard. As of June 2024, 3,516 men and one woman have received the Medal of Honor.

Interesting facts about the Medal of Honor.

  • Teddy Roosevelt was the only president to be awarded the Medal of Honor during his service as a lieutenant colonel in the 1898 Spanish-American War as part of the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, known as the “Rough Riders.” He was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously in 2001.
  • Of the more than 3,500 service members who have received a Medal of Honor, 19 have earned it twice, and 14 earned it for two separate events.
  • To date, the Civil War has produced the most Medal of Honor recipients (1,523).

Distinguished Service Cross

The Army's Distinguished Service Cross.

The Distinguished Service Cross is the second-highest military decoration to be awarded to a member of the United States Army.

Awarded for: Extraordinary heroism while “engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States; while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing/foreign force; or while serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing Armed Force in which the United States is not a belligerent party.”

Actions that merit the Distinguished Service Cross must be “of such a high degree that they are above those required for all other U.S. combat decorations but do not quite meet the criteria for a Medal of Honor.”

Interesting facts about the Distinguished Service Cross:

  • President Woodrow Wilson established the medal on Jan. 2, 1918, at the request of Army Gen. John J. Pershing.
  • Four U.S. Army chaplains were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for their heroism during World War II. They were aboard the Dorchester, a transport ship hit by a German torpedo. The chaplains administered prayers and handed out life preservers – including their own – to those aboard the ship. Of the 902 aboard, 672 died, including the four chaplains.

Navy Cross

The Navy Cross.

The Navy Cross is the second highest military decoration to be awarded to a member of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, or to members of the Coast Guard (when operating under the authority of the Department of the Navy).

Awarded for: The same criteria outlined for the Distinguished Service Cross.

Interesting facts about the Navy Cross:

  • The Navy Cross was established on Feb. 4, 1919.
  • Doris “Dorrie” Miller was the first Black recipient of the Navy Cross for his actions during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Although his rank was mess attendant second class at the time, Miller helped carry wounded sailors to safety during the attack on Pearl Harbor and shot down at least one enemy plane. Miller was killed in action in 1943 during the Battle of Makin.

Air Force Cross

The Air Force Cross.

The Air Force Cross is the second-highest military decoration to be awarded to a member of the United States Air Force.

Awarded for: The same criteria outlined for the Distinguished Service Cross and Navy Cross.

Other interesting facts about the Air Force Cross:

  • The design of the Air Force Cross, established on July 6, 1960, follows the shape of the Distinguished Service Cross, which pays homage to the Air Force’s connection to the Army.
  • Tech Sgt. John Chapman was posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross, becoming the first combat controller to earn the award. He was honored for his heroic actions in saving his team during the Battle of Takur Ghar in Afghanistan, which he did not survive. In 2018, they upgraded his honor to a Medal of Honor and posthumously promoted him to master sergeant.

Silver Star

The Silver Star.

The Silver Star is the third-highest military combat decoration for a member of the U.S. Armed Forces.

Awarded for: Gallantry in action while engaged in action against an enemy of the United States; while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force; or while serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party.

Actions that merit the Silver Star are exceptional and significant but do not meet the criteria for the Medal of Honor or a Service Cross.

Interesting facts about the Silver Star:

  • Nurses Jane Rignel, Linnie Leckrone, and Irene Robar were the first female Silver Star recipients. All three were honored posthumously for tending to wounded service members during World War I.
  • The Silver Star was previously known as the Citation Star and was established in 1918. In 1932, the designation changed to the Silver Star.
The Bronze Star.

Bronze Star

First established on Feb. 4, 1944, the Bronze Star is awarded to any person who, while serving in any capacity with the U.S. Armed Forces after Dec. 6, 1941, distinguishes themselves by heroic or meritorious achievement or service (not involving participation in aerial flight).

Awarded for: Meritorious service or for combat actions, in which case the "V" (valor) designation is attached.

Interesting facts about the Bronze Star:

  • In 1962, President John F. Kennedy amended the order establishing the medal to expand the authorization to include those serving with friendly forces.
  • Famous Bronze Star recipients include movie director Oliver Stone, Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, singer Tony Bennett, actors Henry Fonda and Mickey Rooney, and writer Ernest Hemingway.

Purple Heart

The Purple Heart.

The Purple Heart is a distinguished military decoration awarded to those wounded or killed while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. It is America's oldest military honor and is awarded in the name of the president.

The Purple Heart, originally known as the Badge of Military Merit was established by George Washington in 1782 to recognize heroic acts during the Revolutionary War. The award fell into obscurity before getting renamed the Purple Heart in 1932.

Eligibility for a Purple Heart applies to service members who suffered a wound under these conditions:

  1. The direct or indirect result of enemy action, and
  2. The wound required treatment by a medical officer at the time of the injury.

Interesting facts about the Purple Heart:

  • Army Chief of Staff Gen. Douglas MacArthur was the first recipient of the revived Purple Heart.
  • The only president awarded a Purple Heart was John F. Kennedy, who was injured in WWII while serving in the Navy.
  • A bulldog named Stubby earned two Purple Hearts for his service during WWI. Reckless, a horse and a Marine Corps sergeant, received two Purple Hearts for injuries she sustained in combat during the Korean War. In 1962, animals became ineligible to receive a Purple Heart.

Wounded Warriors and the Stories Behind Their Medals

Many of the post-9/11 veterans Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) serves have seen combat during the 20 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of these brave men and women returned with both physical and mental scars from those deployments. Their perseverance, resiliency, and courage in the face of danger have earned them medals and awards, but their desire to serve and sense of purpose has continued beyond their service.

Here are the stories behind the medals of three WWP™ warriors.

WWP warrior and Army veteran Tonya Oxendine.
WWP warrior and Army veteran Tonya Oxendine.
Tonya Oxendine

“My military awards hold a special place in my heart because they represent honor, pride, and a profound sense of belonging,” said Army veteran Tonya Oxendine, who earned Bronze Stars and a Legion of Merit Medal. “They symbolize my bravery, dedication, and hard work in service. Each award isn't just a medal; it's a reminder of the challenges I've faced, my resilience, and my commitment to serving my country. They stand for the sacrifices made for our freedom and inspire me to uphold values like integrity, bravery, and selflessness. These awards also honor the legacy of those who served before me and encourage future generations to strive for excellence.”

Tonya spent nearly 30 years in the Army, achieving the rank of command sergeant major. She built strength and resilience during her time in the service, but all that she went through, from childhood to the PTSD from her military service, crashed down on her when she returned home. Tonya recognized she needed mental health support and, with the help of WWP, realized she didn’t have to go through it alone. It’s a message she regularly conveys to other veterans as a WWP spokesperson.

“Among these awards, the Good Conduct Medal means the most to me,” she said. " Awarded every three years for good behavior, reliability, and adherence to military values, it proves my discipline and commitment. This medal shows that I have served without any instances of misconduct or disciplinary action. It has always motivated me to maintain high standards and aim for future achievements."

WWP warrior and Army veteran Michael
WWP warrior and Army veteran Michael "CQ" Carrasquillo.
Michael "CQ" Carrasquillo

During an ambush in Afghanistan, Michael “CQ” Carrasquillo took five shots while trying to help a fellow soldier. He spent the next two years in the hospital, relearning how to walk and use his hands again. The medals he received from that experience initially served as a reminder of the trauma.

“Being in the infantry, you typically didn’t care for medals because that either meant you were a serious brown-noser, or worse, you had a really, really bad day,” CQ said. While I recognize that some might see [what I did] as heroic, I know that is what I was trained to do, and there wasn’t a man on that mission who wouldn't have done the exact same if he had been in my position.

“The Purple Heart, while it signifies that I was wounded in battle, for some like me, it took me a long time to not see it as the ‘You didn't finish the fight’ medal – a reminder that I didn't see that deployment to the end with the rest of my guys,” he said.

CQ was medically retired from the Army, but in the process of dealing with his physical injuries, he didn’t realize the mental toll his service took on him. When he reached out to WWP, he was in a dark place. With help, hard work, and the opportunity to connect with other veterans, CQ regained control of his life and a renewed sense of purpose. It’s also allowed him to see his medals in a new light.

“With enough time and perspective, I learned to appreciate my medals and now display them proudly,” CQ said. “If nothing else than to be a reminder to me that no matter how much time passes, I was a badass once.”

WWP warrior and Army veteran Michael Matthews.
WWP warrior and Army veteran Michael Matthews.
Michael Matthews

During Army veteran Michael Matthews' third deployment to the Middle East, he filled in for a gunner on a mission in Mosul, Iraq. He remembers hearing his convoy was under attack over the radio and then a loud bang. Michael woke up in a hospital in Germany two weeks later with his jaw wired shut and severe burns on his back that required skin grafts.

Despite months of physical therapy, relearning to walk, regaining use of the right side of his body, and dealing with other effects of war, like traumatic brain injury and PTSD, Michael continued the fight to live life on his terms.

“My Purple Heart is proof that I am stronger than what the enemy thought would take me out,” Michael said. “It serves as a constant reminder that in life, we will face difficulties, but all we have to do is keep fighting.”

Michael has continued to push himself and be inspired by other veterans by taking part in programs like WWP’s Soldier Ride® and Project Odyssey®. He also continues to inspire others by sharing his story. One of the medals he received is a special reminder of what it means to serve and the camaraderie and loyalty that service builds.

“Being awarded a Bronze Star came as a shock,” Michael said. “I honestly just did what I thought was the right thing to do, which was ensure my brothers to my left and right made it home from the battlefield. It is proof that when you serve in a selfless manner, you will be rewarded.”

See how WWP has worked to honor and empower wounded veterans for over 20 years.

About Wounded Warrior Project

Since 2003, Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) has been meeting the growing needs of warriors, their families, and caregivers — helping them achieve their highest ambition. Learn more.

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