Medal of Honor

Medal of Honor
Medal of Honor
From left to right,
the Army, Navy/Marine Corps/Coast Guard, and Air Force medals
Awarded by the President in the name of Congress
Type Single-grade neck order
Eligibility Military personnel only
Awarded for "Conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his or her life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against any enemy of the United States; while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force; or while serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party."[1][2]
Status Currently awarded
Established July 12, 1862
First awarded American Civil War
Last awarded September 15, 2011
Total awarded 3,475[3]
Next (higher) None
Next (lower) Army: Distinguished Service Cross
Navy: Navy Cross
Marine Corps: Navy Cross
Air Force: Air Force Cross
Coast Guard: Navy Cross
Medal of Honor ribbon.svg Moh rosette.gif
ribbon bar and rosette

The Medal of Honor is the highest military decoration awarded by the United States government. It is bestowed by the President, in the name of Congress, upon members of the United States Armed Forces who distinguish themselves through "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his or her life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States."[1] Due to the nature of its criteria, it is often awarded posthumously (more than half have been since 1941).[4]

Members of all branches of the armed forces are eligible to receive the medal, and there are three versions (one for the Army, one for the Air Force, and one for the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard). The Medal of Honor is bestowed upon an individual by the passing of a Joint Resolution in the Congress[citation needed]. It is then presented to the recipient or, for posthumous awards, to next of kin. The President of the United States presents the medal in person, on behalf of the Congress, representing and recognizing the gratitude of the American people as a whole. Due to its honored status, the medal is afforded special protection under U.S. law.[5]

The Medal of Honor is one of two military neck order awards issued by the United States and is the sole neck order awarded to members of the armed forces (the Commander's Degree of the Legion of Merit is a neck order but it is only authorized for issue to foreign dignitaries).[6]

As the award citation includes the phrase "in the name of Congress", it is sometimes erroneously called the Congressional Medal of Honor; however, the official title is simply the Medal of Honor.[7][8]



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.[1][9]

Reverse of the Medal of Honor awarded to Seaman John Ortega

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.[10]

Early in the Civil War, a medal for individual valor was proposed by Iowa 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. Senate Bill 82, containing a provision for a "Medal of Honor", was signed into law (12Stat329) by President Abraham Lincoln on December 21, 1861.[11] 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."[12] Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles directed the Philadelphia Mint to design the new decoration.[13] 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 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."[11][12]

As there were only two medals that could be issued until World War I including the Purple Heart, the Medal of Honor was sometimes awarded for deeds that would not later merit that distinction. In 1917, when other medals were created for bravery, a recall was requested for 910 Medals of Honor that had been previously issued, but no longer considered that noteworthy.[14] Thereafter, and until the present day, the Medal has been awarded for deeds that were considered exceptional.


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.[1][15]

There is a version of the medal for each sub-cabinet component of the Department of Defense: 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 the U.S. Air Force received the Army version of the medal.[13]

The Coast Guard Medal of Honor, which was distinguished from the Navy medal in 1963, 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 Guadalcanal.[16][17]

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.[18]

A ribbon bar 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 in the first position (top left when seen on the uniform) in order of precedence. 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.[13]


Medal of Honor Flag

On October 23, 2002, Pub.L. 107-248 was enacted, modifying 36 U.S.C. § 903, authorizing a Medal of Honor flag to be presented to recipients of the decoration.[19]

The flag was based on a concept by retired Army Special Forces First Sergeant Bill Kendall of Jefferson, Iowa,[20] who designed a flag to honor Medal of Honor recipient Captain Darrell Lindsey, a B-26 pilot killed in World War II who was from Jefferson. Kendall's design of a light blue field emblazoned with 13 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 five stars and one chevron of three stars,[1] replicate the Medal of Honor ribbon. The flag has no set proportions.[21]

The first Medal of Honor recipient to receive the official flag was Sergeant First Class Paul R. Smith. The flag was cased and presented to his family along with his medal.[22] A special ceremony presenting this flag to 60 Medal of Honor recipients was held onboard USS Constitution on September 30, 2006.[23]


President Calvin Coolidge bestowing the Medal of Honor upon Henry Breault, March 8, 1924

There are two distinct protocols for awarding the Medal of Honor. The first and most common is nomination and approval through a service member's chain of command. The second method is nomination by a member of Congress (generally at the request of a constituent) and approval by a special act of Congress. In both cases, the Medal of Honor is presented by the President on behalf of and in the name of the Congress, as the representatives of the American people.

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 (BB-4) received the medal when a boiler exploded on January 25, 1904. Aboard the USS Chicago (CA-14) in 1901, John Henry Helms received the medal for saving the ship's cook from drowning. Even after World War I, Richard Byrd and Floyd Bennett received the medal for exploration of the North Pole.[24] Thomas J. Ryan received it for saving a woman from the burning Grand Hotel in Yokohama, Japan following the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake.[25]

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 combat Medal of Honor was known as the Tiffany Cross, after the company that designed the medal. The Tiffany Cross was first awarded in 1919, but was unpopular, partly because design,[26] while noncombat awards remained the previous version.[contradiction], there were two awards of the Tiffany Cross Medal of Honor for non-combat to Commander, later Rear Admiral Richard Byrd and Floyd Bennett for their flight over the North Pole in 1926, as authorized by a special act of congress. [27] As a result, in 1942, the United States Navy reverted to a single Medal of Honor, awarded only for heroism.[28] 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 percent of the medals earned during and after World War II have been awarded posthumously.[29] Capt. William McGonagle is an exception to the enemy action rule, receiving his medal for his actions during the USS Liberty incident.[30][31]

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 10 U.S.C. § 3741, which states:

The President may award, and present in the name of Congress, a medal of honor of appropriate design, with ribbons and appurtenances, to a person who while a member of the Army, distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.[32]
The grave of a recipient at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial
Grave of a recipient at the Memphis National Cemetery

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

Privileges and courtesies

The Medal of Honor confers special privileges on its recipients. By law, recipients have several benefits:[33][34][35]

  • Each Medal of Honor recipient may have his or her name entered on the Medal of Honor Roll (38 U.S.C. § 1560). Each person whose name is placed on the Medal of Honor Roll is certified to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs as being entitled to receive a monthly pension above and beyond any military pensions or other benefits for which they may be eligible. The pension is subject to cost-of-living increases; as of 2011, it is $1,194 a month.[36]
  • 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.
  • Eligibility for interment at Arlington National Cemetery if not otherwise eligible.[37]
  • Fully qualified children of recipients are eligible for admission to the United States military academies without regard to the nomination and quota requirements.[38]
  • Recipients receive a 10 percent increase in retired pay under 10 U.S.C. § 3991.
  • Those awarded the medal after October 23, 2002, receive a Medal of Honor Flag. The law specified that all 103 living prior recipients as of that date would receive a flag. (14 U.S.C. § 505).
  • Recipients receive an invitation to all future presidential inaugurations and inaugural balls.[39]
  • As with all medals, retired personnel may wear the Medal of Honor on "appropriate" civilian clothing. Regulations 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.[40][41]
  • Many states offer distinctive Medal of Honor vehicle license plates to recipients without additional charges or fees.[42][43][44][45][46][47][48]


  • Although not required by law or military regulation,[49] members of the uniformed services are encouraged to render salutes to recipients of the Medal of Honor as a matter of respect and courtesy regardless of rank or status.[50][51]

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 but later ruled to be unconstitutional, 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.[52][53] In 2010, in a 2-1 majority decision, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Stolen Valor Act was unconstitutional. It stated that the Act was a violation of free speech because it did not fall within one of the previously announced exceptions to free speech, and the speech it proscribed was, therefore, protected speech. The Court went on to find that there was no evidence that the lies it prohibited harmed anyone and the government had no compelling reason to ban such lies. The dissenting judge, Jay Bybee, commented that the majority refused to follow precedent. He argued that false statements of fact are not entitled to First Amendment protection because they do not contribute to the "marketplace of ideas" and such statements could be prohibited based on a simple balancing test, weighing the interests of prohibiting such statements versus the interests of letting them be made.[54]

The Medal of Honor on display

The Department of Defense issues all Medals of Honor to recipients in the original only. A duplicate medal (marked as such) may be issued, free of charge, to replace a lost, destroyed or stolen one upon written application, subject to approval of the service secretary. 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 18 U.S.C. § 704(b). After the Army redesigned its medal in 1903, a patent was issued[55] 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.[56]


HLI Lordship Industries Inc., a former Medal of Honor contractor, was fined in 1996 for selling 300 fake medals for US $75 each.[57]

In 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 recipients of the medal; the letter was published in the local newspaper.[58]

In 2003, Edward Fedora and Gisela Fedora were charged with violating 18 U.S.C. § 704(b), Unlawful Sale of a Medal of Honor, for selling medals awarded to U.S. Navy Sailor 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 FBI agent.[59] Edward Fedora, a Canadian businessman,[60] plead guilty and was sentenced to prison.[61]


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 (1915–1934) 8 Dominican Republic Occupation 3
World War I 124 Occupation of Nicaragua 2
World War II 464 Korean War 135
Vietnam War 246 USS Liberty incident 1
Battle of Mogadishu 2 Iraq War 4
Afghanistan War 6 Peacetime 193
Unknown soldiers 9

In total, 3475 medals have been awarded to 3456 different people.[62][63] 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. For actions since the beginning of World War II, 861 Medals of Honor have been awarded, 530 (or 62%) posthumously. In total, 627 of the medals have been awarded posthumously.[29]

The largest collective group in the US Military awarded the Medal of Honor with 22 medals are United States Navy Hospital Corpsmen.[citation needed]

By branch of service
Service Awards
Army 2411
Navy 747
Marines 298
Air Force 18
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).[64]

While current regulations, (10 U.S.C. § 6241), 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 Warrior by General Pershing on October 17, 1921. On November 11, 1921, the U.S. Unknown Soldier was reciprocally awarded the Victoria Cross, the British military's highest award for valor. 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 Canadians 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.[65] In the Vietnam War, Peter C. Lemon was the only Canadian recipient of the Medal of Honor.[66]

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 it was awarded were under the authority of the said branch. The maximum number of Medals of Honor earned by any service member has been two.

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


For actions occurring since the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam in 1973, the Medal of Honor has been awarded twelve times, nine of them posthumously. The first two were earned by Delta Force 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 Mogadishu in 1993. Both men lost their lives in doing so.[68]

From the end of the Vietnam War until 2010, no living person received the Medal of Honor for actions in an ongoing conflict. This affected the number of living holders with fewer than 100 recipients still alive in 2010. The Army Times published an article analyzing the lack of non-posthumous awards in its March 30, 2009 issue, before the September 2010 award to Salvatore Giunta. It was suggested that because of the intense partisan politics in Washington, D.C. 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.[69]

Four servicemen were awarded the Medal of Honor for actions in the Iraq War: Army Sergeant First Class Paul Ray Smith, Army Private First Class Ross A. McGinnis, Marine Corps Corporal Jason Dunham and Navy SEAL, Master-at-Arms Second Class Michael A. Monsoor. 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 fire until being killed.[70] The remaining three medals were awarded for falling on a grenade; Dunham threw himself on a grenade to save his fellow Marines in an April 2004 mission, McGinnis covered a grenade which was tossed into his vehicle while on a mounted patrol in December 2006, and Monsoor jumped on a grenade which was thrown in the midst of his SEAL sniper team in September 2006.[71]

Six medals have been awarded for action in Afghanistan. The recipients were Navy SEAL Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy, Army Sergeant First Class Jared C. Monti, Army Staff Sergeant Robert James Miller, Army Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta, Army Sergeant First Class Leroy Petry, and Marine Corps Corporal Dakota Meyer. Murphy received the award for exposing himself to hostile fire in order to make a call for help after his SEAL team was attacked in June 2005. Monti's award was for braving intense fire in an attempt to rescue a wounded soldier in a June 2006 engagement.[72] Miller's medal was for his actions during a January 2008 attack by a numerically superior force.[73] Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta was the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor since Vietnam for his actions during a firefight on October 25, 2007, in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley.[74] Sergeant First Class Leroy Petry became the second living recipient from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars when he received the medal for picking up a live grenade on May 26, 2008.[75][76] On September 15, 2011, Marine Corporal Dakota Meyer received the Medal of Honor for his actions in the 2009 Battle of Ganjgal, becoming the first living U.S. Marine in 41 years to be so honored.[77][78]

Since 1979, 49 belated awardings of the medal have been made to recognize actions from the Civil War to Vietnam.[79] The most recent of these occurred on May 2, 2011, when President Barack Obama presented the Medal of Honor posthumously to two Army soldiers killed in the Korean War, Private First Class Henry Svehla and Private First Class Anthony T. Kahoʻohanohano.[80] Prior to that, the medal was presented to Air Force Chief Master Sergeant Richard Etchberger who was killed during the Battle of Lima Site 85 in the Vietnam War.[81]

27th Maine and other revoked awardings

Monument to the Medal of Honor at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin, Texas

During the Civil War, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton promised a Medal of Honor to every man in the 27th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment 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 to reissue the medals.[82][83]

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), as well as 12 others. Dr. Walker's medal was restored by President Jimmy Carter in 1977.[83] Cody and four other civilian scouts who rendered distinguished service action and who were considered by the board to have fully earned their medals had theirs restored in 1989.[84] The report was endorsed by the Judge Advocate General who advised that the War Department should not seek the return of 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 statute.[85]

Past racial discrimination

A 1993 study commissioned by the Army investigated racial discrimination in the awarding of medals.[86] 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. With the passing of Vernon Baker, all of these recipients have now died.[86]

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.[87] In 2005, President George W. Bush awarded the Medal of Honor to Jewish veteran and Holocaust survivor Tibor Rubin, whom many believed to have been overlooked because of his religion.[87][88]

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 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 awarded by the President.[90]

See also


 This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the United States Army Center of Military History.
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  2. ^ As amended by Act of July 25, 1963
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