Atomic Veterans Commemorative Service Medal

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

Far out in the New Mexico desert, the largest government-funded scientific endeavor culminated in the first nuclear detonation at the White Sands Missile Range. The bright flash followed by intense heat and billowing mushroom cloud heralded the dawn of the atomic age. Physicists, nuclear scientists, chemists, and representatives of the U.S. Armed Forces who took part in the Manhattan Project would never forget their accomplishment. But their work would remain top secret for many years.

As the Cold War slowly replaced the Second World War and nations scrambled to initiate their own nuclear weapons programs, nuclear deterrence became integral in the fabric of U.S. defense policy. Throughout the Cold War, nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) were manufactured, stored, and maintained by the thousands at U.S. Armed Forces installations around the world. Thousands of service members were responsible for their maintenance, security, and ultimately for the slim chance that the fateful order might come to launch the most destructive weapons in human history.

Service members with this distinction received a special recognition recently. In July 2022, the Department of Defense announced the creation of the Atomic Veterans Commemorative Service Medal (AVCSM). In a press release, the department states:

“The Atomic Veterans Commemorative Service Medal recognizes that the service and sacrifice of the Atomic Veterans directly contributed to our Nation’s continued freedom and prosperity during the period following World War II, and was pivotal to our Nation’s defense during the Cold War era.”

Nuclear weapons have since lost their significance following the Cold War, but the veterans who worked closely with them have gained notoriety through their advocacy. The Atomic Veterans Commemorative Service Medal was authorized by Section 583 of the National Defense Authorization Act, and responsibility for establishing and managing the award belongs to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA). The DTRA established guidelines that include an application form and how to navigate the awarding process.

When it comes to eligibility with military service awards, specific vocabulary is essential. The key terms to remember with the AVCSM are “radiation exposure” and “radiation-risk activity.” This means that a veteran must have participated in an exercise or an active duty assignment that involved the risk of exposure to radioactivity. Service members who fit any of these qualifications are eligible for the AVCSM for the period of July 1, 1945, to October 1, 1992. This includes, but is not limited to, the following:

  • Testing and detonation of nuclear devices
  • Occupation of areas with radioactive exposures
  • Refinement of nuclear raw materials
  • Participation in the clean-up of nuclear detonation test sites and radioactive material
  • Storage and maintenance of ICBM silos or nuclear weapons storage facilities

Now what is the role of the National Archives and the National Personnel Records Center with the new award? Unlike routine awards requests where NPRC technicians review the service record and forward a list of entitled awards to the respective service branch, this award is given exclusively by the DTRA. The NPRC’s role is to provide the veteran with the necessary documentation showing duty stations or Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) associated with nuclear and atomic weapons.

The relevant documentation can be found in the Assignment History (Duty Locations) and any document mentioning radiation monitoring, exposure, and/or atomic test participation or radiation duty. When contacting NPRC, veterans should specify they are requesting documents relating to any assignments or duty stations involving radioactive activity. Once veterans receive the appropriate documents, they then fill out the DTRA Form 150. On this form, veterans must provide as much detailed information regarding their atomic/nuclear-related service duties. Once completed, the DTRA reviews and makes its final determination.

The creation of the Atomic Veterans Commemorative Service Medal is an important recognition given to those who served our country and with whom we entrusted with the safety, maintenance, and humanitarian needs of atomic weapons. What’s more profound is that no nuclear weapons have been needed in conflict since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The United States Armed Forces remained vigilant with its nuclear deterrence, and we have those veterans to thank for their service with the deadliest weapons in history.

For more information on the Atomic Veterans Commemorative Service Medal, visit the Defense Threat Reduction Agency website. Completed responses should be sent to this address:

Defense Threat Reduction Agency
8725 John J. Kingman Road, Stop 6201
Fort Belvoir, VA 22060-6201

For assistance on processing your application, please either call the NTPR toll-free helpline: (1-800-462-3683), write to the provided NTPR address, or email at

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

4 thoughts on “Atomic Veterans Commemorative Service Medal

  1. I enjoyed reading this article. Having recently visited White Sands and Los Alamos, it reinforces the history of the development of the atomic bomb. How appropriate that service members who were a part of this endeavor may be recognized

  2. It has always seemed my father serving in WW2 into the beginning of the Cold War had more to due with the Atomic Era than I did in my service 50 years later, but apparently my first service at a nuclear permanent duty station now means Congress is acknowledging, through the DTRA, my career field’s contributions that began for me a half a century after his in the same numbered unit.

  3. My father served as a USAAF photographer for Operation Crossroads in 1946. We children inherited the Operation Crossroads yearbook that helped us understand his service as an atomic veteran. I’m interested in following up on the service medal described in the article. I think it a very appropriate recognition of his service to our nation.

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