Today’s post comes from Thomas Richardson, an expert archives technician at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, Missouri.
The awards system of the United States Armed Forces is complex with a plethora of awards. They range from awards given for acts of valor to those given for blanket participation in the service branches. A handful of veterans are distinguished by awards for high gallantry, valor, and bravery, e.g., the Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, Distinguished Service Cross. Other awards are more ubiquitous, e.g., the Army Service Ribbon, Air Force Training Ribbon, Honorable Discharge Button, etc. These are found throughout millions of military personnel records.
One medal has achieved a unique distinction amongst the routine awards. Established near the end of the Korean War, the National Defense Service Medal (NDSM) has graced the ribbon racks of millions of veterans.
The Department of Defense estimates that since 1953, the NDSM has been awarded at least four million times, not even counting those who apply for it retroactively. The NDSM is authorized at the discretion of the Secretary of Defense, who determines when a national emergency is present and allows the NDSM to be awarded. This means that the NDSM has gone through periods of inactivity.
On Tuesday, August 30, 2022, the first anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin signed orders ending issuance of the National Defense Service Medal for the War on Terror. After January 1, 2023, no active duty service members that enlist after that date will receive the medal. This marks the longest period that the NDSM was authorized; 21 years, 3 months, and 20 days.
What are this award’s origins? How did this award become so procedural? The answer lies with President Dwight D. Eisenhower. During the Korean War, President Eisenhower became concerned with growing contentions in the Cold War. President Harry Truman had already created the Korean Service Medal for service in the Korean War. President Eisenhower conceived the idea of a “blanket campaign” medal that would be issued to any honorably discharged veteran with active service during a “national emergency.” What stipulated a “national emergency” remained at the discretion of the Secretary of Defense. No matter where they served, the NDSM signified military service.
On April 22, 1953, President Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10448 “Establishing the National Defense Service Medal” outlining its basic qualifications:
There is hereby established the National Defense Service Medal, with suitable appurtenances, for award, under such regulations as the Secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force and the Secretary of the Treasury may severally prescribe, and, subject to the provisions of this order, to members of the armed forces of the United States who shall have served during any period between June 27, 1950, and a terminal date to be fixed by the Secretary of Defense…
This order delegated authority to the Secretary of Defense to determine eligibility dates. The Department of Defense followed up on July 15, 1953, with a directive expanding personnel eligibility, issuance procedure, and ribbon layout.
Since 1953, the NDSM was revised by three executive orders, inactivated and reactivated four times, and expanded from active duty service to National Guard and Reservist service. The four active periods coincide with major wars: Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, and the War on Terror. In the 1960s and 1970s, as the Vietnam War intensified, active duty servicemembers performing stateside service along with reservists and Guardsmen qualified for the award. The same criteria applied to Desert Storm participants. By the War on Terror, the NDSM expanded qualifications to its greatest extent. Since 9/11, service members could receive the NDSM almost as a given if they completed 90 days of consecutive active duty, not including training periods.
Those who are on active duty for multiple approved time periods receive bronze star appurtenance on the NDSM and ribbon. Officer cadets that graduate from military academies can receive the NDSM along with those at Officer Candidate Schools upon their commission.
While the National Defense Service Medal is one of the most-issued awards, it can sometimes be overlooked by clerks and records technicians when discharging a veteran with only a few weeks of service. Many veterans apply for a retroactive issuance of the NDSM if it doesn’t appear on their discharge and they served during one of the four authorized time periods.
That will all change after December 31, 2022. The decision by the Department of Defense signals a more peacetime posture with the limitation of troop deployments and counterterrorism operations. The United States is still involved in Syria, but major combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have all ceased. Many veterans can scarcely remember a time when the NDSM wasn’t issued or couldn’t be found on a ribbon rack. Its appearance and commonality gave it a distinctive nickname (the “pizza stain”) for its red and yellow colors. Despite its formulaic criteria and issuance, the National Defense Service Medal for many represents their commitment at a time when the nation needed their service.