Protecting Human Welfare: The Humanitarian Service Medal

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.

Humanitarian Service Medal. (U.S. Army Institute of Heraldry)

On June 30, 2020, the Department of Defense issued a memorandum authorizing all military departments with units participating in COVID-19 relief efforts to be eligible to receive both the Armed Forces Service Medal and the Humanitarian Service Medal. Retroactive from January 31, 2020, to a future “to be determined” date, relief operations responding to natural catastrophes like the COVID-19 pandemic require a great deal of logistical support. 

In many ways, launching a military operation has similar traits to initiating humanitarian relief efforts: departments must coordinate with one another and issue orders to support units. Since 1977, the Humanitarian Service Medal has recognized over 200 relief operations both in the United States and abroad in nearly every continent. The U.S. Armed Forces have not only served a national defense purpose but protected human welfare in an emergency. 

In April 1975, the United States exited South Vietnam, and many displaced South Vietnamese refugees presented a humanitarian crisis in Southeast Asia. Thousands fled the country hoping that they would be rescued and escape reprisals from Communists. Julia Taft, a director of the Interagency Task Force focusing on Indochina, asked President Gerald Ford to establish a medal recognizing those who took part in evacuation operations in South Vietnam. 

Despite some resistance within the Army, Ford signed Executive Order 11965 establishing the Humanitarian Service Medal (HSM) on January 19, 1977, his last full day in office. The medal was made retroactive to April 1, 1975, to incorporate efforts to evacuate high-risk civilians in Southeast Asia, including operations such as New Life, Baby Lift, Eagle Pull, and Frequent Wind. Since then, whenever a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis occurs and elements of the U.S. Armed Forces are activated, the military department determines eligibility for receiving the HSM. 

HSM Directive, Records of the Secretary of Defense, 6/23/1977. (National Archives Identifier 26048427)

A humanitarian crisis normally fulfills a broad criteria that involves sending personnel to high-risk zones, handling shortages of essential supplies for human survival, and shielding a vulnerable population from natural or man-made disaster. Here is a snapshot of some of the humanitarian works the U.S. Armed Forces has carried out since 1975:

  1. Eniwetok Radiological Cleanup: The U.S. tested atomic weapons in the South Pacific in the 1950s, successfully detonating the first hydrogen bomb. In 1978, an intensive cleanup program was launched to recover debris and reduce radiation levels. 
An Air Force Tech. Sgt. checks for radiation on the island of Runit during a clean-up of Eniwetok Atoll. The U.S. used islands in the atoll for atomic testing in the 1950s, 4/1/1978. (National Archives Identifier 6376871)
  1. Truk Island Cholera Epidemic: In 1982, a rapidly spreading outbreak of cholera struck the Chuuk (Truk) Island chain, where cholera cases had never before been reported. In 1983, the U.S. intervened to provide medical care for the island’s inhabitants. 
  1. Mexico City Earthquake: An 8.0 magnitude earthquake hit the Greater Mexico City area on September 19, 1985, causing immense damage. The Mexican government initially refused any help until an aftershock on September 20 brought in help from the U.S. 
Nancy Reagan Visits Mexico City with Ambassador John Gavin after the earthquake, 9/23/1985. (National Archives Identifier 75854311)
  1. Hurricane Katrina: On August 29, 2005, the category 5 hurricane devastated the Caribbean and the U.S. Gulf Coast. Katrina resulted in over $125 billion in damages and 1,800 deaths. The destruction prompted an international response, and each of the service branches, reserves, and National Guard units participated in relief efforts. 
Aftermath of Katrina Flooding, 2005. (National Archives Identifier 70191217)
  1. Operation Tomodachi / Pacific Homecoming: The 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami inflicted substantial damage to Japan’s east coast. It was the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan and resulted in over 16,000 deaths. A joint effort between U.S. Forces-Japan and the Japanese Self-Defense Force provided relief efforts, bringing supplies and medical care to affected communities. 

The National Personnel Records Center has a role in the Humanitarian Service Medal process. The period and area of eligibility for receiving the HSM varies widely, and many veterans can qualify for the medal without realizing it. An NPRC technician reviews the veteran’s OMPF for orders relating to a relief operation and compares that to the Defense Department’s list of approved operations. On occasion, different medals can be authorized for the same operation and override the HSM in terms of precedence. The individual military departments make that call in determining whether the HSM is awarded instead of another medal like the Armed Forces Service Medal. The U.S. has played an integral role in humanitarian relief around the world, and those who volunteer and aid others are recognized for their meritorious service and achievement. 

For a complete list of all HSM-approved operations, visit the Department of Defense

[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’]

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