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The Medal of Honor is the highest military decoration awarded by the United States government. It is bestowed on a member of the United States armed forces who distinguishes himself "conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States." Because of the nature of its criteria, the medal is often awarded posthumously.

Members of all branches of the U.S. military are eligible to receive the medal, and each service has a unique design with the exception of the Marine Corps and Coast Guard, which both use the Navy's medal. The Medal of Honor is often presented personally to the recipient or, in the case of posthumous awards, to next of kin, by the President of the United States. Due to its honored status, the medal is afforded special protection under U.S. law.

The Medal of Honor is one of two military neck order awards issued by the United States Armed Forces, but is the sole neck order awarded to its members. The other is the Commander's Degree of the Legion of Merit, which is only authorized for issue to foreign dignitaries.

The medal is frequently called the Congressional Medal of Honor, stemming from its award by the Department of Defense "in the name of Congress" though the official and correct title is Medal of Honor.The Congressional Medal of Honor Society is so named because that is the name it was given in an act of Congress signed into law by President Eisenhower on August 5, 1958 as Title 36, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code. (See .) The law authorizing the society has since been transferred to Title 36, Chapter 405 of the U.S. Code.


The first formal system for rewarding acts of individual gallantry by American soldiers was established by George Washington on August 7, 1782, when he created the Badge of Military Merit, designed to recognize "any singularly meritorious action." This decoration is America's first combat award and the second oldest American military decoration of any type, after the Fidelity Medallion.

Although the Badge of Military Merit fell into disuse after the American Revolutionary War, the concept of a military award for individual gallantry by members of the U.S. armed forces had been established. In 1847, after the outbreak of the Mexican-American War, a Certificate of Merit was established for soldiers who distinguished themselves in action. The certificate was later granted medal status as the Certificate of Merit Medal.

Early in the Civil War, a medal for individual valor was proposed by Iowamarker Senator James W. Grimes to Winfield Scott, the Commanding General of the United States Army. Scott did not approve the proposal, but the medal did come into use in the Navy. Public Resolution 82, containing a provision for a Navy Medal of Valor, was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on December 21, 1861. The medal was "to be bestowed upon such petty officers, seamen, landsmen, and Marines as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry and other seamanlike qualities during the present war." Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles directed the Philadelphia Mintmarker to design the new decoration. Shortly afterward, a resolution of similar wording was introduced on behalf of the Army and was signed into law on July 12, 1862. This measure provided for awarding a Medal of Honor, as the Navy version also came to be called: "to such noncommissioned officers and privates as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action, and other soldier-like qualities, during the present insurrection."


Early Navy versions of the Medal of Honor.
The Medal of Honor has evolved in appearance since its creation in 1862. The present Army medal consists of a gold star surrounded by a wreath, topped by an eagle on a bar inscribed with the word "Valor." The medal is attached by a hook to a light blue moiré silk neckband that is 1316 inches (30 mm) in width and 21¾ inches (552 mm) in length.

There is a version of the medal for each sub-cabinet component of the Department of Defensemarker: the Department of the Army, Department of the Navy, and Department of the Air Force. Before 1965, when the U.S. Air Force design was adopted, members of the U.S. Army Air Corps, U.S. Army Air Forces, and Air Force received the Army version of the medal.

The Coast Guard Medal of Honor, which was distinguished from the Navy medal in 1963, has never been awarded, partly because the U.S. Coast Guard is subsumed into the U.S. Navy in time of declared war. No design yet exists for it. Only one member of the Coast Guard has received a Medal of Honor, Signalman 1st Class Douglas Munro, who was awarded the Navy version for action during the Battle of Guadalcanalmarker.

In the rare cases (19 thus far) where a service member has been awarded more than one Medal of Honor, current regulations specify that an appropriate award device be centered on the Medal of Honor ribbon and neck medal. To indicate multiple presentations of the Medal of Honor, the U.S. Army and Air Force bestow oak leaf clusters, while the Navy Medal of Honor is worn with gold award stars.

A ribbon that is the same shade of light blue as the neckband, and includes five white stars, pointed upwards, in the shape of an "M" is worn for situations other than full dress uniform. When the ribbon is worn, it is placed alone, ¼ inch (6 mm) above the center of the other ribbons. For wear with civilian clothing, a rosette is issued instead of a miniature lapel pin (which usually shows the ribbon bar). The rosette is the same shade of blue as the neck ribbon and includes white stars. The ribbon and rosette are presented at the same time as the medal.


On October 23, 2003, was enacted, modifying , authorizing a Medal of Honor flag to be presented to recipients of the decoration.

Medal of Honor Flag
The flag was based on a concept by retired Army Special Forces 1SG Bill Kendall of Jefferson, Iowamarker, who designed a flag to honor Medal of Honor recipient Captain Darrell Lindsey, a B-26 pilot killed in World War II who was also from Jefferson. Kendall's design of a light blue field emblazoned with thirteen white five-pointed stars was nearly identical to that of Sarah LeClerc's of the Institute of Heraldry. LeClerc's design, ultimately accepted as the official flag, does not include the words "Medal of Honor" and is fringed in gold. The color of the field and the 13 white stars, arranged in the form of a three bar chevron, consisting of two chevrons of 5 stars and one chevron of 3 stars, replicate the Medal of Honor ribbon. The flag has no set proportions.

The first Medal of Honor recipient to receive the official flag was Paul R. Smith. The flag was cased and presented to his family along with his medal. A special ceremony presenting this flag to 60 Medal of Honor recipients was held onboard on September 30, 2006.

Awarding the medal

There are two distinct protocols for awarding the Medal of Honor. The first and most common is nomination by a service member in the chain of command, followed by approval at each level of command. The other method is nomination by a member of Congress (generally at the request of a constituent) and approval by a special act of Congress. In either case, the Medal of Honor is presented by the President on behalf of the Congress.

Evolution of criteria

Several months after President Abraham Lincoln signed Public Resolution 82 into law on December 21, 1861, a similar resolution for the Army was passed. Six Union soldiers who hijacked the General, a Confederate locomotive were the first recipients. Raid leader James J. Andrews, a civilian hanged as a Union spy, did not receive the medal. Many Medals of Honor awarded in the 19th century were associated with saving the flag, not just for patriotic reasons, but because the flag was a primary means of battlefield communication. During the time of the Civil War, no other military award was authorized, and to many this explains why some seemingly less notable actions were recognized by the Medal of Honor during that war. The criteria for the award tightened after World War I. In the post-World War II era, many eligible recipients might instead have been awarded a Silver Star, Navy Cross or similar award.

Early in the 20th century, the Navy awarded many Medals of Honor for peacetime bravery. For instance, seven sailors aboard the USS Iowa received the medal when a boiler exploded on January 25, 1904. Aboard the USS Chicago in 1901, John Henry Helms received the medal for saving Ishi Tomizi, the ship's cook, from drowning. Even after World War I, Richard Byrd and Floyd Bennett received the medal for exploration of the North Polemarker.Thomas J. Ryan received it for saving a woman from the burning Grand Hotel in Yokohama, Japan following the 1923 Great Kantō earthquakemarker.

Tiffany Cross version of the Medal of Honor
Between 1919 and 1942, the Navy issued two separate versions of the Medal of Honor, one for non-combat bravery and the other for combat-related acts. Official accounts vary, but generally the non-combat Medal of Honor was known as the Tiffany Cross, after the company that manufactured the medal. The Tiffany Cross was first issued in 1919 but was rare and unpopular, partly because it was presented both for combat and noncombat events. As a result, in 1942, the United States Navy reverted to a single Medal of Honor, awarded only for heroism.

Since the beginning of World War II, the medal has been awarded for extreme bravery beyond the call of duty while engaged in action against an enemy. Arising from these criteria, approximately 60% of the medals earned during and after World War II have been awarded posthumously. Capt. William McGonagle is an exception to the enemy action rule, earning his medal during the USS Liberty incident.

Authority and privileges

The U.S. Army Medal of Honor was first authorized by a joint resolution of Congress on July 12, 1862. The specific authorizing statute was , which states:

Later authorizations created similar medals for other branches of the service.

The Medal of Honor confers special privileges on its recipients. By law, recipients have several benefits:
  • Each Medal of Honor recipient may have his or her name entered on the Medal of Honor Roll ( ). Each person whose name is placed on the Medal of Honor Roll is certified to the United States Department of Veterans Affairsmarker as being entitled to receive the special pension of US$1,027 per month above and beyond any military pensions or other benefits for which they may be eligible. As of December 1, 2004, the pension is subject to cost-of-living increases.
  • Enlisted recipients of the Medal of Honor are entitled to a supplemental uniform allowance.
  • Recipients receive special entitlements to air transportation under the provisions of DOD Regulation 4515.13-R.
  • Special identification cards and commissary and exchange privileges are provided for Medal of Honor recipients and their eligible dependents.
  • Fully qualified children of recipients are eligible for admission to the United States military academies without regard to the nomination and quota requirements.
  • Recipients receive a 10% increase in retired pay under .
  • Those awarded the medal after October 23, 2002, also receive a Medal of Honor Flag. The law also specifies that all 103 living prior recipients also receive the flag. ( ).
  • As with all medals, retired personnel may wear the Medal of Honor on "appropriate" civilian clothing. Regulations also specify that recipients of the Medal of Honor are allowed to wear the uniform "at their pleasure" with standard restrictions on political, commercial, or extremist purposes; other former members of the armed forces may do so only at certain ceremonial occasions.


  • In the United States Coast Guard it is customary for a Medal of Honor recipient to always be saluted, no matter what the rank.
  • Recipients are always greeted and saluted before non-recipients are greeted or saluted.
  • Recipients must adhere to military protocol of initiating a salute to superior officers who, in turn, are invited to time their return salute so as to coincide with that of the recipient. The essential point is that the superior officers are honoring the action which earned the medal, rather than answering a salute by the recipient. (This courtesy is requested of officers but not ordered by military regulations, in keeping with the tradition that officers are Ladies and Gentlemen by Act of Congress. Military subordinates are required by regulation to render salute to superior officers, while the superiors are not, in turn, required by regulation to return the salute.)
  • Superior officers do not originate a salute to the recipient, in conformity with military standards for proper courtesies, so as to maintain respect for and adherence to military chain of command and the privilage of seniority in rank.
  • In US Navy protocol, Medal of Honor recipients are given "eight bells" when boarding or disembarking a ship, with the announcement "Medal of Honor, Arriving" (or "Departing" as the case may be).

Other privileges and courtesies

  • Many states offer distinctive Medal of Honor vehicle license plates to recipients without additional charges or fees.
  • Living Medal of Honor recipients are often invited to Presidential Inaugurations and accompanying festivities.

Legal protection

Until late 2006, the Medal of Honor was the only service decoration afforded special protection under federal law to prevent it from being imitated or privately sold. The Stolen Valor Act of 2005, enacted December 20, 2006, extended federal protection to include false verbal, written, or physical claims to other military decorations, service medals, or military badges to which a person is not entitled.
The Medal of Honor on display
All Medals of Honor are issued in the original only, by the Department of Defensemarker, to a recipient. Misuse of the medal, including unauthorized manufacture or wear, is punishable by a fine up to $100,000 and imprisonment up to one year pursuant to . After the Army redesigned its medal in 1903, a patent was issued (United States Patent #D37,236) to legally prevent others from making the medal. When the patent expired, the Federal government enacted a law making it illegal to produce, wear, or distribute the Medal of Honor without proper authority. A number of veterans' organizations and private companies devote themselves to exposing those who falsely claim to have received the Medal of Honor.


HLI Lordship Industries Inc., a former Medal of Honor contractor, was fined in 1996 for selling 300 fake medals for US$75 each.

Also that year, Fort Lauderdale, Florida resident Jackie Stern was convicted of wearing a medal to which he was not entitled; instead of six months in jail, a federal judge sentenced him to serve one year's probation and to write a letter of apology to each of the then-living 171 actual recipients of the medal; the letter was also published in the local newspaper.

In 2003, Edward Fedora and Gisela Fedora were charged with violating , Unlawful Sale of a Medal of Honor, for selling medals awarded to U.S. Navy Seaman Robert Blume (for action in the Spanish-American War) and to U.S. Army First Sergeant George Washington Roosevelt (for action in the Civil War) to an FBImarker agent. Edward Fedora, a Canadian businessman, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to prison; Gisela Fedora's status is unknown.


By conflict
Civil War 1,522 Indian Wars 426
Korean Expedition 15 Spanish-American War 110
Samoan Civil War 4 Philippine-American War 86
Boxer Rebellion 59 Mexican Expedition 56
Haiti 8 Dominican Republic Occupation 3
World War I 124 Occupation of Nicaragua 2
World War II 464 Korean War 133
Vietnam War 246 Battle of Mogadishumarker 2
Iraq War 4 Afghanistan War 2
Peacetime 193 Unknowns 9

In total, 3,467 medals have been awarded to 3,448 different people. Nineteen men received a second award: 14 of these received two separate medals for two separate actions, and five received both the Navy and the Army Medals of Honor for the same action. Since the beginning of World War II, 855 Medals of Honor have been awarded, 529 posthumously. In total, 621 had their medals presented posthumously.
By branch of service
Service Awards
Army 2405
Navy 746
Marines 297
Air Force 17
Coast Guard 1
The first Army Medal of Honor was awarded to Private Jacob Parrott during the American Civil War for his role in the Andrews Raid. The only female Medal of Honor recipient is Mary Edwards Walker, a Civil War surgeon. Her medal was rescinded in 1917 along with many other non-combat awards, but it was restored by President Jimmy Carter in 1977 (see Evolution of Criteria, above).

While current regulations, ( ), beginning in 1918, explicitly state that recipients must be serving in the U.S. Armed Forces at the time of performing a valorous act that warrants the award, exceptions have been made. For example, Charles Lindbergh, while a reserve member of the U.S. Army Air Corps, received his Medal of Honor as a civilian pilot. In addition, the Medal of Honor was presented to the British Unknown Warriormarker by General Pershing on October 17, 1921; later the U.S.marker Unknown Soldiermarker was reciprocally awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain's highest award for gallantry, on November 11, 1921. Apart from these few exceptions, Medals of Honor can only be awarded to members of the U.S. armed forces - although being a U.S. citizen is not a prerequisite. Sixty-one Canadiansmarker who were serving in the United States armed forces have been awarded the Medal of Honor, with a majority awarded for actions in the American Civil War. Since 1900, only four have been awarded to Canadians. In the Vietnam War, Peter C. Lemon was the only Canadian recipient of the Medal of Honor.

Double recipients

Nineteen men have been awarded the Medal of Honor twice. Five of these men were awarded both the Army and Navy Medal of Honor for the same action. Since February 1919, no single individual can be awarded more than one Medal of Honor for the same action although a member of one branch of the armed forces can receive the Medal of Honor from another branch, if the actions for which awarded were under the authority of the said branch. The maximum number of Medals of Honor earned by any service member has been two. There has never been a recorded case of a service member receiving three or more Medals of Honor.

§ Rank refers to rank held at time of Medal of Honor action.


For actions occurring since the withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam in 1973, the Medal of Honor has been awarded eight times, all of them posthumously. The first two were earned by Delta Forcemarker snipers Sergeant First Class Randy Shughart and Master Sergeant Gary Gordon, who defended downed Black Hawk helicopter pilot Chief Warrant Officer Michael Durant and his crew during the Battle of Mogadishumarker in 1993. Both men lost their lives in doing so. Four soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor for actions in Iraq; to Army Sergeant First Class Paul Ray Smith, Army Private First Class Ross A. McGinnis, Marine Corps Corporal Jason Dunham and Navy MA2 Michael A. Monsoor. In 2005, a posthumous Medal of Honor was awarded to Sergeant First Class Smith for actions in Operation Iraqi Freedom; his medal was presented to his survivors. In April 2003, Smith organized the defense of a prisoner of war holding area that was attacked by a company-sized Iraqi force, personally manning a machine gun under enemy fire. In 2007, President George W. Bush awarded Marine Corporal Dunham, of Sciomarker, New Yorkmarker, the Medal of Honor posthumously for his bravery in Iraq during a combat mission during which he threw himself on a grenade to save his fellow Marines during an action near the Syrianmarker border in April 2004. Two medals have been awarded for action in Afghanistan, both posthumously; Navy SEAL Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy and Sergeant First Class Jared C. Monti. Monti's award was announced in July 2009; his family received the award from President Obama in a ceremony at the White House on September 17, 2009 in a televised ceremony.

On March 3, 2008, President Bush presented the Medal of Honor posthumously to Master Sergeant Woodrow W. Keeble for his actions during the Korean War. His family had waged a long campaign for the medal after the recommendation was twice lost during the conflict. Master Sergeant Keeble, who died in 1982, was the first member of the Sioux tribe to be awarded the medal. This was the 49th belated Medal of Honor award since 1979.

Awarding controversies

Civil War awardings

During the Civil War, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton promised a Medal of Honor to every man in the 27th Regiment, Maine Infantry who extended his enlistment beyond the agreed upon date. The Battle of Gettysburg was imminent and 311 men of the regiment volunteered to serve until the battle was resolved. The remaining men returned to Maine but with the Union victory at Gettysburg the 311 volunteers soon followed. The volunteers arrived back in Maine in time to be discharged with the men who had earlier returned. Since there seemed to be no official list of the 311 volunteers, the War Department exacerbated the situation by forwarding 864 medals to the commanding officer of the regiment. The commanding officer only issued medals to the volunteers who stayed behind and retained the others on the grounds if he returned the remainder to the War Department, the War Department would try and reissue the medals.

In 1916, a board of five generals on the retired list convened by law to review every Army Medal of Honor awarded. The board was to report on any Medals of Honor awarded or issued for any cause other than distinguished service. The commission, led by Nelson Miles, identified 911 awards for causes other than distinguished service. This included the 864 medals awarded to members of the 27th Maine, 29 who served as Abraham Lincoln's funeral guard, six civilians (including Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, the only woman to have been awarded the medal, and Buffalo Bill Cody), and 12 others. Dr. Walker's medal was restored by President Jimmy Carter in 1977. Cody and four other civilian scouts who rendered distinguished service action and who were considerd by the board to have fully earnt their medals finally had their medals restored in 1989. The report was endorsed by the Judge Advocate General who advised that the War Department should not seek the return the medals from the recipients identified by the board. In the case of recipients who continued to wear the medal the War Department was advised to take no action to enforce the statue.

Past racial discrimination

A 1993 study commissioned by the Army investigated racial discrimination in the awarding of medals. At the time, no Medals of Honor had been awarded to black soldiers who served in World War II. After an exhaustive review of files, the study recommended that several black Distinguished Service Cross recipients be upgraded to the Medal of Honor. On January 13, 1997, President Bill Clinton awarded the medal to seven African American World War II veterans. Of these, only Vernon Baker was still alive. A similar study of Asian Americans in 1998 resulted in President Bill Clinton awarding 21 new Medals of Honor in 2000, including 20 to Japanese American members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, among them Senator Daniel Inouye. In 2005, President George W. Bush awarded the Medal of Honor to Jewish veteran and Holocaust survivor Tibor Rubin, who many believed to have been overlooked because of his religion.

Iraq and Afghanistan wars controversy

The Medal of Honor has not been awarded to any living persons in the Iraqmarker and Afghanistanmarker wars, only posthumously. In addition, the percentage of persons receiving the medal in these wars has been significantly lower than in previous wars (one out of a million vs. one out of one-hundred thousand).

The Army Times published an article analyzing the awards in its March 30, 2009 issue. It was suggested that because of the intense partisan politics in Washington, D.C.marker over these wars, the Bush Administration subjected potential Medal of Honor recipients to intense background checks so as to avoid scrutiny, from political opponents, of both the administration and the recipient. An Army Times editorial suggested, "Our heroes deserve to be recognized."

Wounded Knee controversy

Besides the Mary Walker controversy, the 20 medals awarded at Wounded Knee are called into question. Some American Indians had called for "the immediate rescindment of the twenty Medals of Honor awarded for actions contributing to the Massacre at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890."

Similar decorations within the United States

The following United States decorations bear similar names to the Medal of Honor, but are separate awards with different criteria for issuance.

Several United States law enforcement decorations also bear the name "Medal of Honor". The Public Safety Officer Medal of Valor, established by Congress in 2001, "the highest national award for valor by a public safety officer", is also awarded by the President.

See also


External links

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