What Do Military Medals and Ribbons Represent?

Look at all the ribbons and medals of an aged and decorated officer, and you could easily get lost in the regalia. There are a lot of military commendations in the United States armed forces alone, and even veteran military members probably can’t pick them all out from a lineup. But there is a method to the madness. And the meaning of different medals and ribbons can be broken down into a few common categories.

Personal Decorations

Personal decorations are some of the most common ribbons and medals, and they’re rewarded for personal accomplishments. The most common are distinguished service and distinguished cross medals. Both commend exceptionally meritorious behavior, while the cross is assigned specifically to actions performed in combat. Both are high honors that can be awarded for any number of different achievements. The purple heart - which is awarded to members of the armed forces injured in combat - is also one of the more common personal decorations.

Unit Awards

In addition to medals for personal achievement, many members of the armed services will rack up unit awards over the course of their career. Active unit awards are assigned for members of the unit who were actively involved in the action that earned their commendation, while inactive members are provided different badges commemorating the occasion. The Presidential Unit commendation is a unit’s equivalent to a distinguished service cross, while the Meritorious Unit commendation falls a level below the Presidential Unit commendation. Unit awards are also available to units who perform outside of wartime, with most branches offering efficiency medals for units who perform exceptionally in training exercises.

Service Awards

There are a lot of service awards out there, as these medals and ribbons fill a sort of catch-all role for actions that are worthy of commendation but don’t necessarily rise to the level of one meritorious act of performance. Good conduct medals are assigned for all of the armed services who act in good conduct for a period of years - usually three. Good conduct and meritorious service medals are also available for branch reserve members, and many branches hand out specific achievements on a yearly basis. But given their rarity, awards like the Coast Guard Enlisted Person of the Year ribbon and the Outstanding Airman of the Year ribbon are especially prestigious awards. Service awards also include medals given to prisoners of war.

Campaign and Special Service Medals

Since the end of World War II, special medals have been handed out to commemorate the various campaigns that enlisted military members are involved in. General service medals are awarded to service members enlisted during every major conflict, and there are usually accompanying medals for those who engage in combat during active wartime campaigns as well. Additionally, many branches offer their own expeditionary medals for members who set foot in enemy territory.


All of this is just scratching the surface of the full range of medals the U.S. armed forces hand out. There’s a whole collection of marksmanship awards as well as ribbons and medals for more specific but no-less-important actions outside of the field of combat. That can range from medals for recruiters and instructors to those made for people who performed in specialized campaigns.


There are a lot of medals, but that’s important. Because each medal tells a story, and the combination of them together with layers those stories together into a dense collection of memories and achievements. Whether you’re a military collector or you’re looking to build a shadow box for a veteran family member, the fascinating legacy of military ribbons and medals is worth your attention.