Armed Forces Service Medal

Updated: August 10, 2020
In this Article

    The Armed Forces Service Medal is awarded to those with qualifying military service who are part of a U.S. mission “deemed to be a significant activity and who encounter no foreign armed opposition or imminent hostile action.”

    This medal is offered in cases where “no other United States service medal is approved” and may be awarded posthumously. It is defined in federal guidelines as a “theater award”, which is one “authorized for presentation to all participants who meet the eligibility requirements established for a designated operation.”

    A Very Brief History Of The Armed Forces Service Medal (AFSM)

    The Armed Forces Service Medal was created during the Clinton presidency via Executive Order 12985. It was signed into law Jan. 11, 1996. Since that time it has been awarded for a variety of military operations including the following:

    • Operation Provide Promise
    • Operation Joint Endeavor
    • Operation Joint Guard
    • Operation Able Sentry
    • Operation Deny Flight
    • Operation Maritime Monitor
    • Operation Sharp Guard
    • United Nations Mission in Haiti, U.S. Forces Haiti and U.S. Support Group Haiti
    • Hurricane Relief –Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita
    • United Assistance
    • Oaken Steel
    • COVID-19 operations

    There are two basic types of military awards and decorations–those that recognize an individual’s achievements or valor, and those recognize the same but on behalf of all the members of a military unit.

    The Armed Forces Medal is the latter–it is awarded to those who participate as a unit in a military operation that meets the criteria for the award. Some military sources describe the AFSM as a “non-combat parallel” of the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal.

    The Armed Forces Service Medal And COVID-19 Operations

    COVID-19 containment operations and the military mission to help U.S. cities fight the virus is one of the most contemporary examples of servicemembers earning the AFSM. In this context, troops could be eligible to be awarded either the Armed Forces Service Medal or the Humanitarian Service Medal.

    Qualifying Service

    However, those who are eligible for one or both won’t get two awards for the same military service or deployment. In this case, qualifying criteria for the AFSM includes:

    • Completing 30 consecutive or nonconsecutive days of qualifying service
    • Troops do not have to be in a deployed status if reassigned from other duties to serve in the fight against COVID-19
    • Those serving in uniform who contracted coronavirus are also eligible regardless of the 30-day requirement
    • The Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, Matthew Donovan, stated in an official memo, “Due to the health risk posed by COVID-19, award of the Armed Forces Service Medal is authorized for one day of qualifying service if that service resulted in the member contracting the virus”

    Other Considerations

    • All who are nominated for the AFSM must have military service characterized as Honorable;
    • The AFSM is not awarded for NATO or United Nations operations that do not involve “significant, concurrent U.S. military support operations”;
    • The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the determining authority for areas of operation that qualify for an AFSM;
    • The AFSM has precedence “immediately after the Southwest Asia Service Medal”;
    • This award is not presented for participation in domestic disturbances “involving law enforcement, equal rights to citizens, or protection of properties”.

    Awarding The AFSM

    The instructions for awarding the AFSM includes a directive that it shall be presented “only for operations for which no other United States service medal is approved.” For some branches of military service, there are added considerations.

    A good example–those who serve in Navy or Marine Corps units will be recommended only in cases where Navy expeditionary medals or the Marine equivalents are not appropriate.

    Only one AFSM may be awarded per service member, but successive awards are possible–they are represented by a service star attached to the ribbon of the original award.

    These are known as “devices” and adding a star, oak leaf clusters, or other devices is a common practice when an award has been earned more than once. Those who earn an AFSM are directed to wear it ahead of the Humanitarian Service Medal (HSM) in the order of precedence.


    Who Qualifies For The Armed Forces Service Medal?

    To qualify, service members must be assigned to a unit participating for one or more days in a military operation that has a specifically defined area or criteria for said mission. The service member also needs to meet one or more of the following requirements:

    • Involved in “direct support” for 30 consecutive days in the area of eligibility OR
    • Be involved for 60 non-consecutive days provided this support involves entering the area of eligibility; OR
    • Be a regularly assigned crew member of an aircraft flying into, out of, within, or over the area of eligibility (such activity must support the operation)
    • Performance of non-deployed or remotely located support units “is not justification for award of the AFSM”

    The Armed Forces Service Medal may not be awarded for military exercises and is frequently not presented in cases where there is an operation featuring a single military department–in such cases the more appropriate award may be a service-specific one. What types of operations may qualify a unit for consideration of an AFSM?

    • Peacekeeping
    • “Prolonged” humanitarian operations
    • S. military support of the United Nations (UN) or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and for operations of assistance to friendly foreign nations

    About The AuthorJoe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News

    Written by Team