End of an Era: The National Defense Service Medal

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.

Update: Effective January 1, 2023, the National Defense Service Medal is no longer issued to those who enlist after December 31, 2022. Those on active duty for 30 days before that date are still eligible for the award.

Please see the following for more information links: 

Please note that if the NPRC cannot determine entitlement to specific awards, the request is then referred to the service branch.

We also encourage you to bring other questions to History Hub’s Military Records Community

55 thoughts on “End of an Era: The National Defense Service Medal

  1. I served 3 years active duty in the Army from September 26, 1961 to September 15, 1964 & was honorably discharged. I never received my National Defense Service Medal which I believe I qualify for. How to I get that recognition for my service that included the time of the Viet Nam conflict?

      1. I have personally purchased medals for individuals that served in WW2 and Korea. Go to a military installation, army surplus store, or do a search online that sells medals and ribbons.

          1. True. The post-exchange will sell you medals/ribbons for most ‘been-there/done that’ medals, but you need a DD-214 for individual combat/valor medals.

      2. I enlisted August 28,1975 and graduated basic 8 weeks later. Our entire cycle was awarded the NDSM upon graduation

        1. Just curious, does that show up on your DD214?

          Reason I ask is, my late brother served with 82nd during that time (Graduated boot camp in August 1975) and his DD214 does not show it, and their unit was instructed to wear it upon graduation as well.

          My family and I went to his graduation, and I recall the Colonel talking about it. Still, it is not on his DD214, so when we did his shadow box, we did not include it.

          I too am a life-long veteran; served six years as a Marine (Active and reserve), three years with the National Guard, and twelve years with the Naval Reserve. Despite serving several periods on active duty, six years total, including the two years immediately before 9/11 as a recruiter, I do not qualify for the NDSM, as the periods of active duty do not qualify.

          Thank you for your service, Veteran.


    1. Honestly, the best and quite simply, the easiest way to rectify this is to go to your local VA, speak to an ombudsman, state your concern and he’ll direct you. Members of your local Vietnam Veterans Group could and would be more than willing to help out in this matter!!

    2. Apply for retroactive service, 61-64, Vietnam era conflict. Apply for additional ribbon at location in MO, and when a printed copy of new dd-214 arrives.
      Application to add approved…add ribbon

    3. Were you there ? I just read something that mentions something about Era Vets are being stopped from getting these Medals. I was There. Not Nam, but Desert Storm. I don’t care about the Medals, I want my Combat status on my DD214. ??

  2. Honestly Boot Recruits should have never received the ribbon because they are just recruits.
    Cold War veterans that have deployed, served on ships. Outside of the continental United States. Should be recognized. They are truly the forgotten!

    1. Maybe it’s time to renew lobbying for the Cold War Service Medal — while there’s still enough of us Cold Warriors left to matter.

      1. How the heck can they just stop this medal? What about those service members who follow us that have served before! It needs to stay in effect! What’s next, the MOH?

        1. The intent is honor those that signed up trained and served knowing the country was in conflict and there was a high likelihood they would be sent into combat and distinguish them from those who signed up for the GI bill or cause there girlfriend got pregnant.

        2. Well they just don’t give it to everyone. You must have served during the stipulated periods/wars. Korea, Viet Nam, Gulf war and War on Terrorism. You must have served on Active Duty for 90 days or during the period. And not for training. It should be reflected on your DD214, and you should apply if it is not.

    2. Wrong!!!!
      Anyone that makes it through boot camp, is now officially serving in the defense of the country.

      1. I agree!!!! I served my full contract 1977 to 1980/3-yr contract. And didn’t get a NDSM or anything. I guess we were considered America’s, ugly duckling soldiers since there was no war per se. However, we were attacked in way-Remember the Iran Hostage Crisis.
        We (US Army) went on alert along with other branches. Jimmy Carter was President, Clifford Alexander was Secretary of the Army. So it is apparent-that we were not real gunfighting war-like Vietnam. That we poor saps, weren’t important to America………..very hurt by this at 66 yrs old. Only some West Point cadet that didn’t know the US Army existed……Would hurt a bunch of real patriates!! You hear me Mr. Austin.

        1. U.S. Navy, 27APR83 to 26APR87,
          three + years, aboard USS Dwight D. Eisenhower CVN 69, no NDSM!
          Plus, the GI bill got changed to almost nothing, while we were deployed overseas!
          FC2 /E-5

        2. I also served in the US ARMY 1978-1981 active duty in West Germany during the Cold War Era. Our missions were to protect the democracies of the NATO world and keep a strong military force in Europe against a Russian invasion. We were stationed in top secret various locations and were exposed in dangerous weather conditions at times of the season changes. Thousands of military troops scraficed their life’s while the rest of the United States of America citizens and the rest of the world slept at nights that there were military presence all over the world watching if any invasion or a terrorist attack would occur. We were the first responders there already far away from our country and maybe our families. The United States military is always on alert and standing by any circumstances that may arise in a actual emergency if called upon. Our survival rate in Europe was very deem if there was a occupation invasion by the Warsaw Pack Communist countries. We were still out numbered and probably wouldn’t survive. We were told we were like only a speed bump on the road to slow down the Communist invasion. So Cold War Era Veterans ought to be allowed to wear the NDSR because we were not deployed, we were already on the front lines. Cold War Era from 1946-1991.

        3. I agree with you. I was in the army from 79 to 83 and we had Lebanon Panama and Grenada also in Germany where I was stationed at the terrorism was at its peak they were snatching soldiers off the street blowing up disco text all sorts of stuff. And being in an armor battalion I spent more time at the folder Gap or on field exercises that I did anywhere else people would say how’d you like Germany I’m like I didn’t get to see much of it except for the woods at the folding Gap or at the gun ranges

          And Cold War veterans don’t get this it’s a shame it’s bad enough we can’t get a cold war medal but we can’t wear a National Defense medal it’s just not right

        4. I was in VA 27, 14th Carrier Vessel Wing 14, aboard the USS Coral Sea CV 43, deployed 13 November 1979-11 June 1980 to the Indian Ocean/Iran (Operation Eagle Claw 24 April 1980). I was awarded a Meritorious Unit Commendation, Navy Expeditionary Medal, and the Sea Service Deployment Ribbon but no NDSM.

      2. It’s BASIC TRAINING. The included time is not for training. Active Duty not for training. It’s like being considered a Veteran, 180 Active Service not for training. The Reservists have a stipulation for points toward retirement, to be a Veteran.

    3. Kellie, Boot recruits feed into the machine. They are not “Separate” from you and I unequivocally. For You were a boot. The fear they instill into the enemy is no different than an advancing troop. The Oath is where this specific ribbon is earned. To set aside civilian freedom for the cause. As in History, Taking up arms for Defense is a posture you wash away too quickly with the denial of this ribbon. If you think about millions who never set foot into combat, but feed the machine, are they to be forgotten as well?
      87-07 Combat Vet (r) Bosnia to Afghanistan and all in between.

    4. True, but it’s just an opinion. The NDSM should be issued now since another war is heating up, and troops in Syria and Iraq are getting hit, but they won’t be getting the Purple Heart because there’s no war. Legislation needs to happen to get the Department of Defense to issue the NDSM again.

    5. Adding after boot camp, and AIT…a trained soldier on active(30 days min.) serving. Is a ready soldier, willing to initiate in a war or conflict… Is deserving of ribbon… As I was, 90-91 for dessert storm. Actively serving with 142nd, 7th infantry Alaska. 91 Awarded AAM, for winning performance in Soldier of the Year contest. Totally cool,, PLDC completed two months later, returning back to Edgewood for schooling… Promoted to Corporal, E-4 month after returning back to Ft. Richardson…..
      Loved serving, do it all again in a heartbeat…
      Huh-raah.. GO ARMY!

    6. But that’s the purpose or design of the ribbon. The idea was that everyone, everywhere (including stateside) played a part when we were at war. If you’re in theater then they have different awards for that.

  3. Sorry, but the NDSM was only good only for decoration, to add another ribbon to the uniform. At least for the Air Force. You didn’t receive any points towards promotional opportunities. As being out of the military, the NDSM does absolutely nothing for you. It doesn’t provide the ability to join VFW, it doesn’t help with Veteran’s Preference, it does absolutely nothing for you. The American Defense Medal, on the other hand at least allows you to be eligible for benefits.

    1. There are MANY medals and ribbons that have no value in the context you’re talking about. They are about recognition on some level, not “what they get you”. While I will wholeheartedly agree that it’s nice when an award helps you advance your career, they aren’t all meant to.

  4. I served for 3 years and never received my National accommodation medal I have two honorable discharges I feel I deserve that metal even though I didn’t go to Vietnam I served from 72 to 75

    1. In my opinion,, yes active for more then 30 days during conflict..
      Apply in MO, to add to military record retro..
      Issued new 214,, feel free to add pizza ribbon..

    2. I was in the Navy from January ’75 to December ’76. During that time everyone with 180 days active service, any 1 day of which happened from April ’64 to May ’75 was considered a Vietnam Era Veteran and was awarded this medal. We called it the Gedunk medal(unoffically of course)

  5. I serve 12 weeks North Atlantic operations tracking and hunting the last nuclear subs from the Soviet Union all of us at my base which was 87 men never got a national defense medal for outstanding work 24/7 operations at that base.

    1. Isn’t there a medal for service on the seas, outside of: Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard??
      I recall army has a “at sea” ribbon for service by army on ships…doing just that.. am I correct? Should be some metrious achievement for that particular work on the ocean ..

  6. While on US Army Reserve, I was activated on September 12, 2001. I was on active duty orders. I also stayed behind providing support to my unit while they were deployed to Irak. Do I qualify to receive the National Defense Service Medal?

  7. I served in the Navy FMF Corpsman from 73-77 3rd Mar Div 3rd Marine Air Wing & 3rd Marine Helicopter Air Wing. That was my 1st hitch. I served off the coast of Vietnam in the pullout in March of 1975. My 2nd hitch was 1988 -1994 I was recalled to active duty Aug 1, 1990 when Kuwait was invaded for Desert Storm. I received 2 NDSM’S & 2 Honorable Discharges. I also applied for & received a Cold War certificate for my service during those times. Don’t know if there’s a medal for that one. To all of you who served…..Thank ya’ll for your service Oorah Semper Fidelis Semper Fortis.

  8. Served 75 -79 USArmy. Earned Army Commendation Medal for medical team leader 2/13 INF HHC. No NDSM, No HDM, No Good Conduct, no Cold War, no Oversea Ribbon.

    1. We know when we served and why we served. Medals may be important for promotions and certainly indicate such things as bravery,valor and meritorious service which are not to be ignored. However in the end your heart tells you the value of the decoration. We served the nation out of love and duty not to light up our chests with a textile billboard. NDSM,ARCOM,AFRM. Thanks for all who served regardless of awards.

      1. Absolutely agree, I didn’t sign the line for medals…ribbons, or awards..
        I served,, honorably, and don’t recall a minute thinking of being all I could be for medals.
        God bless those on that line… Proud of being brothers in arms as was I.(88-91)
        ..not a ribbon collector…hoh-raah!

  9. To make future distinction in active service there should be a ribbon indicating combat service. When your life is fully on the line there should be recognition for that.

    1. Agree, as others in past conflicts have been…
      Ass on the line,, 214 should recognize distinction….AGREE!
      NOT an umbrella ribbon, having earned NDSM,,,I’m not a combat veteran, nor will I ever be..
      2 army achievement, national defense, (active dessert storm) not grain of sand in my ass, yet there are heros with less, AND ARE MORE DESERVING THEN I…God bless those soldiers,, I’ll never forget there sacrifice…

  10. Anyone taking ‘The Oath’ to defend the United States is signing a blank check to the United States, payable up to and including their very life. The NDSM should never have been terminated for those who serve.

  11. I was serving during the Gulf War in 1991. When I saw the National Defense Service Medal being worn by others in uniform prior to that, it told me they had been serving in 1973 or earlier. Once the Gulf War started, we all became eligible for it. There was a box where everyone put their old ribbon racks because they needed new ones to accommodate the ribbon and picked up ones that worked for them.

  12. I served honorably in the Regular Army from 1983 to 1989. When I served during the tail end of the Cold War, The NDSM wasn’t being awarded. It was awarded once again in August 1990 shortly after Operation Desert Shield began unless I am mistaken. My second enlistment ended six and a half months early due to a back injury I sustained in the line of duty (I was a 13Bravo20 E5 Gunner) and left the service in Mid August 1989. Never saw combat, and I got out before the crap began hitting the fan. Would have been nice if the soldiers of my time had been awarded the NDSM. Oh well.

  13. I served 1/69-12-70 Medical Corpsman Training!

    VM service 1/39th Artillery I Corps 10/69-11/70!

    NDSM, ARCOM, VCM, VSM, BSM, 2 O/S Svc Bars

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