Valor from Abroad: Foreign Awards in the U.S. Armed Forces

Today’s post comes from Thomas Richardson, an archives technician at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri.

The U.S. Armed Forces have been deployed all over the world, serving in conjunction with foreign militaries carrying out operations for a host of reasons: combating insurgency and enemy regimes, humanitarian relief, and joint training exercises, just to name a few. Since the United States began engaging in international conflicts, nations have bestowed honors and awards to U.S. units and personnel who have contributed to the host nation’s cause, or even sacrificed their lives. Today the U.S. Armed Forces have authorized more than 150 foreign awards for U.S. military personnel to wear on their uniforms. 

Men of the 369th (15th New York) who won the Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action, 1919. (National Archives Identifier 533492)

Awards from Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and South America are unique with their qualifications and how they are bestowed. Many are dynastic orders or are modeled after aristocratic awards. Some are personally given by heads of state, and senior officers are the most common recipients as they oversee global commands that work with nations in that region, e.g., European Command, Central Command, Indo-Pacific Command. Even these are rare and given at the end of a commander’s tour of duty. Senior generals like Dwight Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur received a large number of foreign awards for their World War I and World War II service. 

Prominent senior honors like Japan’s Supreme Order of the Chrysanthemum or the Order of Victory from the defunct Soviet Union are not awarded to many enlisted soldiers. Entitlement to other foreign awards can be granted by general orders or on a case-by-case basis. The Department of Defense, service branch, or unit commander can allow their units to receive a particular award, which then follows normal awarding procedures.

France, South Korea, the Philippines, the former Republic of Vietnam, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia are the countries with the most commonly issued awards to enlisted service members. Here is a snapshot of the awards they offer:

  • France: Croix de Guerre, 1914 and 1945 versions. Awarded to those who served in France in both World Wars and took part in the liberation from Nazi occupation. This prestigious award was given specifically to special units or individuals; not all World War I or World War II veterans are entitled to this medal.
  • South Korea: The Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation. The ROK awarded it to all U.S. units who served in Korea or in the air or waters, but not all U.S. units accepted it. The DA Pamphlet 672-1 contains all those who are authorized to have the award. 
  • The Korean War Service Medal, an award created in 1951, recognizes the service of everyone who served in the Korean War, but it wasn’t initially approved for wear by the Department of Defense. In 1999 the Department of the Army authorized the award to be worn by all members of the U.S. Armed Forces. Surviving Korean War veterans can apply for the medal by providing proof of their service. Korean War veterans can visit the Army Human Resources Command web page and download the ROK War Service Medal application here: Korean War Service Medal Application
  • Philippines: During World War II, the Philippines offered multiple medals to U.S. service members who were stationed there both before and after the Japanese occupation of the country. The Philippines Defense, Liberation, and Independence Medal were awarded to those who defended the country from the Japanese invasion and to U.S. forces that liberated them later. All participating units also received the Philippines Presidential Unit Citation. 
  • Republic of Vietnam: during its nearly 20 years, the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) created a large awards system for its military and for its allies. Medals like the RVN Campaign Medal and Cross of Gallantry are common for enlisted service members and then a higher echelon of distinguished service awards were created for senior officers. These included awards like the National Order of Vietnam and the Distinguished Service Order and its multiple classes of awards. These all include a form of unit citation as well. The majority of Vietnam War veterans can apply for these medals as the Department of Defense made them retroactive to the service branches. 
  • Kuwait and Saudi Arabia: During Operation Desert Storm and Desert Shield, coalition forces took part in defending Kuwait and large sections of Saudi Arabia. For their efforts, both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia created their versions of the Kuwait Liberation Medal. The Kuwait version is awarded to everyone who served in 1990 and 1991, but the Saudi Arabia version is much rarer as it is only authorized for a small time period (January 17, 1991, to February 28, 1991). The Department of Defense recently announced that the Saudi Arabia version of the Kuwait Liberation Medal will no longer be issued as supplies have been depleted and will not be restocked. Veterans who are entitled to the medal and ribbon must consult with private and commercial vendors. 

Now what is the role of the National Archives when it comes to these foreign awards? As with many award requests submitted through the National Personnel Records Center, reference technicians consult a variety of Defense Department sources, general orders, and unit records to determine entitlement to foreign awards. Navy and Marine Corps ledgers are filled with the movements and actions of ships, ground, and air units, which help determine if a unit was eligible for a foreign award. The Army has issued orders to allow all veterans who served in certain conflicts or theaters to automatically receive some foreign decorations as well. 

Specific foreign awards are not manufactured by the service branch or the Department of Defense. Therefore, many veterans look to commercial sources to obtain the appropriate medal or ribbon. For example, the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with 1960 device was awarded by South Vietnam, but the medal is not issued by the Defense Department. Only the ribbon with the 1960 device is given to the veteran; veterans must look to private vendors to locate the medal. Normally when it comes to private and commercial vendors, verification of service or eligibility isn’t required.

Foreign awards and medals serve as a reminder of where our Armed Forces have gone and the impact they’ve had on the world. They illustrate how the Armed Forces have also evolved and the willingness of service members to deploy overseas. For many, the medal received from another country is a way of saying “thank you for your service.” 

Disclaimer: Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the National Personnel Records Center is completing only 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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