It is known as the Pyramid of Honor: the hierarchy of military awards for gallantry, valor and heroism. The Purple Heart forms the base.
At the top is the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest medal for valor in combat. It is unique in every way: It is the only military medal that is worn around the neck. Its recipients are the only individuals whom the President salutes as a matter of custom.
The Medal is awarded by the President, in the name of Congress, to a member of the armed forces who “distinguishes himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty”
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- 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.
The Navy was the first service branch to seek authorization for a decoration to recognize and honor distinguished naval service. President Lincoln signed the legislation on December 21, 1861. Legislation approving an Army Medal of Honor was signed July 12, 1862. The first medals were presented on March 25, 1863, to six Union Army volunteers. Originally presented only to enlisted personnel, eligibility later was extended to officers as well.
At the time, it was the only medal authorized, without the strict criteria in use today. As a result, Medals of Honor were awarded, for example, to entire regiments just for re-enlisting. And many Union veterans petitioned Congress to receive their own Medals in the decades following the war. A military review board would, in 1916, rescind many of them. However, the 1,523 Medals awarded to Civil War soldiers represent 44 percent of all Medals of Honor awarded in its 152-year history.
More than 18 percent ‐ 646 ‐ of the Medals awarded since 1863 have been presented posthumously:
- From the Civil War until World War II, of the 2,418 Medals awarded, just three percent – 83 – were presented posthumously.
- From World War II to the present, more than 60 percent of Medals have been awarded posthumously: 58 percent in World War II, 73.8 percent in the Korean War, 62.9 percent in the Vietnam War and 38.9 percent in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Within the last few decades, the Defense Department has reviewed records of a number of potential Medal recipients who may have been passed over because of their race, religion or ethnicity. As a result of these reviews, a number of African-American, Hispanic, Japanese and Jewish servicemen have received long-overdue recognition as Medal of Honor recipients.Back to Top
To date, 3,515 Medals of Honor have been presented to 3,495 service men and to one woman. Nineteen men received two Medals – 14 of them for two separate actions and five received both Army and Navy Medals of Honor for the same action
- 2,449 Medals have been awarded to U.S. Army soldiers
- 748 Medals have been awarded to members of the U.S. Navy
- 299 Medals have been awarded to U.S. Marines
- 18 Medals have been awarded to members of the U.S. Air Force
- 1 Medal has been awarded to a U.S. Coast Guardsman
Marines and Coast Guardsmen receive the Navy Medal of Honor. Until a separate Air Force Medal of Honor was created in 1965, members of the Army Air Corps and the Air Force received the Army Medal of Honor.
To download a one-page breakdown of Medal of Honor recipients by conflict and by service branch, click here .
To download a factsheet about the Medal of Honor click here .Back to Top
The appearance of the Medals of Honor has not changed significantly since they were first designed during the Civil War. The original designs featured:
- Inverted five-point stars.
- Laurel leaves that symbolized victory and oak leaves that stood for strength
- Thirty-four stars represented the number of stars on the American flag, including the 11 Confederate states
- Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and war, stood inside the circle of 34 stars. The owl on her helmet symbolized wisdom. The shield she wields in one hand represents the U.S. Coat of Arms. The male figure cowering before her and holding snakes stands for “discord.”
- The Navy version of the Medal is suspended from an anchor. The Army version is suspended from an eagle holding cannons and cannonballs in its talons
Since 1944, all Medals have been attached to a light blue moiré silk ribbon with 13 white stars formed into three chevrons at the center.
That same year, the Army made some revisions to the design of its Medal: The laurel leaves formed a wreath surrounding the star and the image of Minerva conquering “discord” was replaced with Minerva’s head. The stars were replaced with the inscription, “The United States of America.” And the Medal was suspended from an eagle holding in its talons a bar inscribed with “VALOR.”
The Air Force Medal, first awarded in 1965, features the head of the Statue of Liberty engraved in the center and encircled by 34 stars. A laurel wreath surrounds the inverted star, which is suspended from an adaptation of the thunderbolts of the Air Force Coat of Arms. A bar inscribed with “VALOR” sits above the thunderbolts.Back to Top