Medal of Honor: America’s Highest Military Decoration, Explained

Chastity Fabry

The Medal of Honor, the United States Military’s highest decoration, is not an award most of us will encounter very often. And apart from those belonging to the original receipts or their families, the medals are often something you’re only likely to see in a museumas very few are in private collections in the United States.

The history of this highest decoration dates back to the American Civil War when Iowa Senator James W. Crimes introduced a bill to “promote the efficiency of the Navy” by authorizing the production and distribution of “medals of honor.” Within months a similar bill was introduced for an award for privates of the U.S. Army. The wording and nature of the bills changed, including that this award would be for soldiers of all services and all ranks. On July 12, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the authorization of the Medal of Honor.

As it was the only military award for valor during the conflict of brother vs. brother 1,527 medals were awarded. With the introduction of other medals during the Spanish-American War, the Medal of Honor became the supreme honor. In total, more than 3,464 Medals of Honor have been awarded to Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen.

Today the Medal of Honor, along with the Legion of Merit are the only two neck order awards issued by the United States Armed Forcesand it is the only neck order issued to members of the U.S. Armed Forces. All members of all branches of the U.S. military are eligible to receive the honor, and each service has its own unique designwith the exception of the USMC and Coast Guard, which both use the Navy’s version of the award.

The Medal of Honor has evolved greatly since it was first introduced in 1862. The basic medal is a gold star surrounded by a wreath, topped by an eagle on a bar with the word “Valor” inscribed. The gold star is attached to a ribbon with thirteen stars on a light blue field, the same color as the neckband.  

Collecting the Medal of Honor 

For American collectors, there is no legal way of obtaining a Medal of Honor, short of earning distinguished service or inheriting one from a relative. Prior to 2006 federal law protected the Medal of Honor from being imitated or privately sold, and with the introduction of the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, any medal authorized by Congress is protected as well. Under the law, which was enacted on Dec. 20, 2006, it is a crime to falsely claim to have won the medal.

Copies of the Medal of Honor have been produced, but these fall under the federal law and collectors are advised that buying or trading these may be punishable with fines or imprisonment.     

And while collectors may feel that a collection is lacking in some way by not obtaining the highest military decoration for the U.S. armed forces, this should just reinforce the great heroism and sacrifice made by the soldiers who earned them. 

Medal of Honor Facts: 

*Enlisted recipients of the Medal of Honor are entitled to a supplemental uniform allowance. 

*Children of recipients are eligible for admission to the United States military academies without regard to the quota requirements. 

*It is a federal felony to falsely claim to be a Medal of Honor recipient. Under the Stolen Valor Act, it is also against the law to sell or buy a Medal of Honor. 

*The Medal of Honor has been presented nine times where the circumstances are “unknown” or “classified.” 

*The term “Congressional Medal of Honor” is incorrect. The Medal of Honor is presented by the President on the behalf of Congress, and the confusion may come from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, which was formed by an act of Congress in 1958. 

*A total of nineteen recipients have been awarded more than one Medal of Honor, and current regulations specify that an appropriate award device be centered on the ribbon. This is an oak leaf cluster for U.S. Army and Air Force medals, and a gold award stars for the Navy version.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com

Image: Reuters

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