Highest Ranking U.S. Military Medals

Updated: February 13, 2023
In this Article

    The United States military awards medals for valor; meritorious service under combat conditions; non-combat heroism, campaigns, expeditionary and service medals.

    The most prestigious military medals recognize valor and heroism, honoring those who went above and beyond the call of duty while serving in combat.

    The military awards its three highest-ranking medals to “service members who carry out the bravest and most selfless acts in combat,” according to the Department of Defense.

    A Brief History of Military Medals

    Militaries have used awards and decorations to recognize victories or valor since ancient Rome, according to a historical Army report on awards and decorations. Sweden and Poland have some of the oldest military decorations that are still in use today and can trace their origins to the late 1700s.

    The earliest American military award was the Badge of Military Merit, created by General George Washington in 1782 to honor enlisted soldiers who “displayed unusual gallantry or extraordinary fidelity,” according to VA website. In 1932, the heart-shaped piece of cloth evolved into what we know now as the Purple Heart.

    While the award continues to honor bravery, it’s become associated with service members who were wounded or killed in the line of duty, which newer regulations qualified as evidence of valor.

    The Department of Defense created the Medal of Honor, currently the United States military’s most prestigious decoration, in 1861. Several more decorations have since followed.


    Personal Military Decorations for Individual Valor

    The DOD commemorates the recipients of these three highest military honors by listing them on its valor website.

    You can also find stories of some of the recipients on the “Honors for Valor” page of the DOD website.

    The Medal of Honor

    highest ranking military medals

    Photo by Kevin Fleming, U.S. Army Sustainment Command

    The Medal of Honor is the highest military award a service member can receive. The president presents recipients with this award at a formal ceremony in Washington, D.C.

    Similar to the original Badge of Military Merit, service members can only receive this medal by distinguishing “themselves through conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty,” according to the DOD.

    There are three variations of the Medal of Honor for different branches of service: an Army version, an Air Force version and a version for the Navy, Coast Guard and Marine Corps. The Navy version was the original Medal of Honor created in 1861. The Army created its version the following year. The Air Force created its version in 1965.

    Note: The Medal of Honor is sometimes referred to as the Congressional Medal of Honor. This extended name may be linked to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, a nonprofit group chartered by Congress and comprised of Medal of Honor recipients.

    The Distinguished Service Cross, the Navy Cross and the Air Force Cross

    Distinguished Service Cross

    U.S. Army photo by Patrick A. Albright, Maneuver Center of Excellence Public Affairs Office photographer

    According to the DOD, military branches award service crosses “for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an opposing armed force.”

    As with the Medal of Honor, there are three variations of the service crosses for different branches of service.

    The Army awarded the first Distinguished Service Cross in 1918. The Navy authorized the Navy Cross in 1919, initially for distinguished service. In 1942, Congress redesignated the Navy Cross as a medal to be awarded for bravery in combat only.

    Members of the Navy, Coast Guard and Marine Corps can receive the Navy Cross.

    The Air Force created its version, the Air Force Cross, in 1960. Before that, deserving airmen received the Distinguished Service Cross.

    The Silver Star

    Silver Star

    Photo by Staff Sgt. Jimmy Bention, 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit

    The Silver Star evolved from the Army’s Citation Star and the Navy Commendation Star. These small stars were worn on the ribbons of other Army campaign decorations. The original citation star design is at the center of the Silver Star, which replaced it in 1932.

    Recipients of the Citation Star could exchange it for a Silver Star.

    Silver Star recipients display “gallantry in action against an opposing armed force,” according to the DOD.

    Among the first recipients were three nurses from World War I: Jane Rignel, Linnie Leckrone and Irene Robar, who were stationed on the front lines of France in 1918.

    Multipurpose Personal Military Decorations Used to Recognize Valor

    Service members may receive other medals for valor. These medals, known as multipurpose personal military decorations, may also recognize other achievements, including non-combat heroism.

    To signify that the medal is for valor in combat, a “V” device may be attached to the decoration.

    The Distinguished Flying Cross

    Distinguished Flying Cross

    U.S. Air Force photo by Jim Varhegyi/Released

    The Air Corps Act established the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) in 1926. According to an Air Force Historical Research Agency article, it recognizes “heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight. Charles Lindbergh was the first DFC recipient.

    Amelia Earhart was the last civilian to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross. The military stopped awarding the DFC to civilians after a 1927 executive order from President Calvin Coolidge.

    The Bronze Star

    Bronze Star

    Photo by Cpl. Richard Blumenstein, Marine Forces, Special Operations Command

    The military awards bronze stars to service members who display heroism and valor outside of aerial flight. The Bronze Star was authorized in 1944 and may be presented for valor or meritorious service.

    The Purple Heart

    Purple Heart

    Photo by Cpl. Christopher Bigelow, 364th Expeditionary Sustainment Command

    This military medal originated from the American Revolution when George Washington created a heart-shaped Badge of Military Merit in 1782.

    In 1917, service members who were wounded during World War I received the Army Wound Ribbon.

    President Herbert Hoover revived George Washington’s Badge of Military Merit design as the Purple Heart in 1932.

    At the time, the military awarded it for merit or for receiving wounds in action against an opposing military force.

    Ten years later, in 1942, the War Department designated the Purple Heart for those who were wounded or killed in combat.

    The Air Medal

    Air Medal

    Photo by Capt. Kristoffer Sibbaluca, 101st Combat Aviation Brigade

    In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the air medal to recognize “meritorious achievement while participating in an aerial flight,” according to the Air Force Historical Research Agency article.

    Commendation Medals

    Commendation Medal

    U.S. Air National Guard photo/Tech. Sgt. Michael Matkin

    According to the DOD, service members may receive one of these commendation medals for “heroic or meritorious achievement or service” assigned to a branch of service or joint-service force.

    • Joint Service Commendation Medal
    • Army Commendation Medal
    • Navy Commendation Medal (for the Navy and Marine Corps.)
    • Air Force Commendation Medal

    Written by Tamila McDonald

    Tamila McDonald is a U.S. Army veteran with 20 years of service, including five years as a military financial advisor. After retiring from the Army, she spent eight years as an AFCPE-certified personal financial advisor for wounded warriors and their families. Now she writes about personal finance and benefits programs for Veteran.com.