Recognizing Service: How to Determine Entitlement to Medals

Today’s post comes from Thomas Richardson, an archives technician at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri. It is part of a series on records at the National Personnel Records Center.

Awards and decorations of the United States Armed Forces can be beautifully complex and informative. New awards are established, and existing ones are amended. The Department of Defense (DOD) manages the awards procedure and the recognition of foreign awards. This information changes over time, and inevitably, veterans who want copies of their medals can sometimes face a daunting process. Fortunately, the National Archives and Records Administration performs a vital service in this very process. 

Requests for replacement medals and awards are routine for the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC); they’re wanted for shadow-boxes, memorial services, or to replace lost and stolen medals. When award eligibility is retroactively applied to a time period or conflict, many veterans apply for said award. Note that the service branch issues the awards; not the NPRC.

PFC Edwin Witt with Purple Heart Medal, 7/3/1944. (National Archives Identifier 138926472)

When a request comes in, NPRC technicians review the veteran’s personnel record for awards information, which is then submitted to the appropriate branch. The first document they look at is the Notice of Separation (DD Form 214). This critical document summarizes the veteran’s service by recording their Military Occupational Specialty (MOS), rank, character of service, type of discharge, and a list of awards.

However, the research doesn’t end there. Typos and missing information are common on DD-214s (especially pre–Vietnam War era), and as unit chronological information is updated by the DOD, many veterans can receive more awards or appurtenances than they realize. Other documents that include awards information in a service record are copies of general orders and citations. 

Technicians use reference materials to assist in finding the correct medals and appurtenances (e.g., Bronze Stars, V devices, oak leaf clusters, etc.). These include rubrics, ledgers, and unit chronologies from the Department of Defense. Apart from personal awards like a Purple Heart and Silver Star, veterans automatically receive some awards based on time and location. These are typically campaign, service, and foreign awards. 

First American to receive the Distinguished Service Cross. Col.Percy L. Jones, Chief of Service, pinning the Distinguished Service Cross on the breast of Pvt. Leo. F. McGuire, S.S.U. 647. McGuire is a member of the Army Ambulance Service with the French Army, 1918. (National Archives Identifier 26433223)

What are the basic tenets for determining medals?

Time: Awards are authorized for a specific time frame to recognize a past or ongoing conflict. If a veteran served honorably in that period, they receive that award. Two examples include the National Defense Service Medal and the World War II Victory Medal. Established in 1953 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the NDSM recognizes all those who served in the Armed Forces during any armed conflict since 1953. It is one of the most widely awarded medals. The WWII Victory Medal is awarded to all service members who served honorably from December 7, 1941, to December 31, 1946. All veterans receive this award for just one day of active duty in that date range.  

Location: Where a veteran served while on active duty is a crucial factor. Most military regulations state that 30 consecutive days of service in a specific location is required to receive that award. One example is the Vietnam Service Medal. If a veteran participated in operations inside a foreign country, in the air space, or territorial waters, they received the VSM. Foreign service can be found in a veteran’s personnel file and is normally annotated to reflect any overseas service. 

Foreign Awards: Whenever the U.S. Armed Forces participate in an armed conflict overseas, allied foreign governments can establish awards for both their territorial forces and the foreign expeditionary forces. The Chiefs-of-Staff or Commandants for each branch reserve the right to authorize any foreign awards to their units. This means that not everyone may receive the same foreign awards for a conflict. The Republic of Vietnam (RVN) illustrates this point. The U.S. Army allows all Army veterans who served in Vietnam to receive both the RVN Campaign Medal and the RVN Gallantry Cross. This applies whether or not the medals are listed in their service record. The Air Force, Navy, and Marines do not have the same blanket policy. A service member or unit must have a general order authorizing them to wear the medals. 

These are some foreign awards that the DOD recognizes:

  • Croix de Guerre (France)
  • Philippine Defense Medal (Philippines) 
  • Philippine Liberation Medal (Philippines)
  • Philippine Presidential Unit Citation (Philippines)
  • United Nations Service Medal (UN)
  • Republic of Korea War Service Medal (South Korea)
  • Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation (South Korea)
  • Multinational Forces and Observers Medal (Egypt and Israel)
  • NATO Medal (NATO)
  • Kuwait Liberation Medal (Kuwait and Saudi Arabia)
Marine Maj. Arthur R. Conant awarded Bronze Star Medal. (National Archives Identifier 176250522)

Appurtenances are common with campaign and service medals. Each service branch constructs a chronological order of campaigns with start and end dates. These help determine phases of a conflict and how many service star appurtenances are attached to a veteran’s campaign medal. If they were on active duty for two campaigns, then they receive two service stars. 

Determining eligibility for retroactive awards is another common request for the NPRC. When criteria for a newly created award is written, a retroactive element can be incorporated to recognize acts or service carried out by previous veterans. Two great examples are the Combat Action Ribbon and the Korea Defense Service Medal. The CAR was established in 1969, but current Navy rules allow WWII and Korean War veterans to apply for the award if they meet specific criteria. The KDSM was created in 2002 to recognize everyone who served a tour of duty in Korea since July 27, 1954. The KDSM is one of the most retroactively awarded medals as a result. 

Personally, helping veterans receive their medals and recognizing their accomplishments is a professionally rewarding process. The NPRC strives everyday to help veterans and providing information about their medals and awards is one part of the ongoing mission. 

Disclaimer: Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the National Personnel Records Center is only completing emergency requests for separation documents (i.e., burials, medical emergencies, homeless veterans, etc.). All other requests for personnel, medical, and awards information are not being answered at this time until local health conditions improve. For current information about the center’s operating status, please visit Veterans’ Service Record.

6 thoughts on “Recognizing Service: How to Determine Entitlement to Medals

  1. Can we ask for a copy of military awards that were given to a relative that ism long passed away? I have a 3x g-grandfather who served two tours in the civil war from Minnesota. Is there any chance of my obtaining any copies of any medals he may have received for his military service? Below is his information.
    Peter Laughlin
    Enlistment Date 1861
    Enlistment Location Fillmore
    Regiment 2nd Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment

    1. There weren’t any government military awards in use during the Civil War, with the exception of the Medal of Honor. Following the war, veterans groups and the Grand Army of the Republic organization had their own medals that were given retroactively to its members. These aren’t the same as campaign or service medals we think of today. In 1905, Congress created the Civil War Campaign Medal that is awarded to anyone who served in during the war, but it’s now considered obsolete and not issued anymore. You might check to see if you ancestor belonged to any veteran groups who might have handed out awards.

  2. Did request and did receive the 2 Certificates of military Service (and some ribbons) for my deceased father. Do not recall getting a letter explaining any additional authorized decorations. On his WD 53 (OCT 14, 1946 to FEB 26, 1948) only had World War II Victory Medal and Army of Occupation Medal_Japan. Honorably Discharged as PFC. Then his DD 214 (OCT 18, 1950 to MAR 31, 1952) had UN Service Modal, Korean Svc Medal, Purple Heart (lost leg: Manju?, Korea 4 FEB 1951), CIB, and Good Conduct Medal; significant assignment: Co I 5th Inf Regt 24th Div. Retired (? lost leg), rank: Corporal.
    Hoping you can please help me find all decorations he deserves? OR direct me to someone who can?
    Thanks!
    C. Johnson

    1. Based on what he’s already received, your father is also entitled to receive the Honorable Discharge Button (Ruptured Duck) and is eligible to receive the Republic of Korea War Service Medal. Since the NPRC is not completing medals cases during Phase 0, you can just contact a private or commercial vendor for the button. With the KWSM, you need to complete the request form on the Army HRC website (https://www.hrc.army.mil/content/Korean%20War%20Service%20Medal). He is also entitled to receive the Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation which can also be purchased from a commercial vendor.

  3. Hello,
    I requested my grandfather’s records twice (2010, 2019). We learned in 2010 that he was entitled to receive medals and was never sent them, so he was quickly sent an envelope containing them. Marvelous.
    However, there were two questions that emerged. 1) He received a medal that we can’t explain and 2) one of the medals should have had a device attached.
    I attempted to get these questions answered when I applied for his military records the second time but I have not made any progress.

    Can you put me in touch with someone who can answer this question, preferably without having to pay for a third package of records?
    Thanks,
    Eric

    1. You can request a complete list of medals without asking for a replacement set under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA): https://www.archives.gov/personnel-records-center/foia-info

      You should be able to get a letter listing all the entitled medals and awards a veteran received. If there’s a discrepancy with devices or type of awards, they can also check with the service branch to verify medals entitlement if they already have a copy of the record.

      Awards information is not a priority now due to COVID-19, but your best bet without having to pay for more copies would be to submit a FOIA request for entitled awards.

      You can also put in a request to History Hub: https://historyhub.history.gov/community/military-records

      Good luck!

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