How to tell where a US soldier or veteran has served based on their medals

Thomas Watkins/AFP/Getty ImagesMedals awarded to Army Master Sgt. Charles McDaniel, who went missing during the Korean War, include several awards from World War II as well as his service in Korea.
  • The US military has a host of awards and medals for its service members.
  • Some awards, like the Medal of Honour and the Silver and Bronze Star awards, are given to service members who display bravery in combat.
  • Others are given for serving in specific operations or even missions – these are known as campaign awards.
  • Depending on the medals a service member or veteran wears, it’s typically possible to determine which wars or regions of the world they have served in.
  • Scroll through to see campaign awards for operations and missions since the Korean War.


Service in war time

Jim Barber/ShutterstockThe National Defence Service Medal is automatically awarded to anyone who signs up to serve during wartime.

The ISIS fight

Petty Officer 2nd Class Lyle Wilkie/Department of DefenceThe medal awarded for support of Operation Inherent Resolve was authorised for service starting in 2014.

Service members who have supported Operation Inherent Resolve, the US mission in Syria to combat the Islamic State, are now eligible for a medal.

The medal was approved in 2016 – prior to that, service members who supported OIR were awarded the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary (GWOT-E) medal.


Global war on terror

Scott Olson/Getty ImagesAn Illinois National Guard veteran holds up the global war on terrorism expeditionary and service medals.

There are two different campaign awards for service in the US’s war against terror.

The GWOT Service medal is awarded to service members who serve in either a direct or indirect role in support of operations during the global war on terror, including personnel stateside who process paperwork for deployed troops.

The GWOT Expeditionary Medal, seen on the left, is more specific – service members must deploy for service in an anti-terrorism operation. Ground troops deployed to Somalia for over 30 days, for example, would qualify for this medal.

A service member who qualifies for the GWOT-E typically also qualifies for the service medal.

Read more: Trump’s Pentagon has expanded its secretive war on terror to 80 countries – here’s what we know


Afghanistan

Staff Sgt. Alexx Pons/US Air ForceThe Afghanistan Campaign Medal and the Global War on Terror Expeditionary medal are not authorised for the same period or action.

The Afghanistan Campaign award is given to service members who complete at least 30 days in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.


Iraq

Army Institute of Heraldry/Wikimedia Commons/Public domainThe Iraq Campaign Medal

The Iraq Campaign Medal is awarded to service members who deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

For both the Afghanistan and Iraq campaign awards, service members are only eligible for one of each, regardless of how many times they deployed to the country.

Stars may be worn on the ribbons as indicators of participation in specific, designated missions during the operation.


Antarctica

Staff Sgt. Alexx Pons/US Air ForceThe Antarctica Service Medal and ribbon are awarded to people who spend at least 30 consecutive days in the Antarctic or fly 15 missions into or out of the continent.

The Coast Guard and Navy have Arctic equivalents, which differ slightly but both reverse the colour scheme of the Antarctic ribbon and medal, with black or dark blue in the center and white on the outer edges.


Kosovo

Staff Sgt. John Valceanu/US Army/Wikimedia CommonsThe Kosovo campaign medal was awarded to service members who served during the Kosovo Defence Campaign, which began in 1999.

The NATO bombing campaign led to the retreat of Yugoslav forces from Kosovo. A peace-keeping force remains there to this day.


Liberation of Kuwait

Marie Eriel Hobro/Washington Post/Getty ImagesKuwaiti Liberation Medal (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) and corresponding ribbon.

Depending on their specific mission and location, service members who participated in the liberation of Kuwait may have qualified for awards presented by the governments of Saudi Arabia or Kuwait.


Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm

Wikimedia Commons/Public domainThe Kuwaiti Liberation Medal, government of Kuwait.

The government of Kuwait authorised US personnel to wear this award if they served in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in the early 1990s.


Southwest Asia: Desert Storm and Desert Shield

Gwoeii/ShutterstockA postage stamp shows the Southwest Asia service medal, awarded to service members who deployed in support of Operations Desert Shield or Desert Storm.

Vietnam service

Jonathan Steffen/US ArmyAn arrangement of medals made during a military ceremony honouring Vietnam veterans.

The Vietnam service ribbon has a yellow background with three red lines in the center and a green line on each side.

The award was given to service members who served in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, or air or water space in that region between 1965 and 1973.

Other medals depicted here are the Bronze Star, Army Commendation Medal, and Purple Heart.


South Vietnam

Natale Matteo/ShutterstockThe Republic of Vietnam Campaign medal.

This medal was awarded to service members who provided direct combat support to South Vietnam’s Armed Forces during the war.

Criteria included those who served for six months or more in South Vietnam or who were injured, captured, or killed in the line of duty.


Korean war

Staff Sgt. Alexx Pons/US Air ForceThe Republic of Korea Korean War Service Medal.

The Republic of Korea Korean War Service Medal was authorised in 1999 to honour the sacrifices of Korean War veterans.

This award specifically designates veterans who served in the country of Korea during the war.


Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesKorean War veteran Ross Donald Stensgaard displays the awards he earned during his service in the Korean War, including the Purple Heart and National Defence Service Medal (top row) and the UN Medal alongside the Korean Service Medal (bottom)

South Korea

Staff Sgt. Alexx Pons/US Air ForceThe Korean Defence Service Medal is awarded to any US service member who has served in the Republic of Korea after July 1954.

Recognising that the Korean War never ended, the Defence Department authorised the Korean Defence Service Medal for service members who deployed to or served in the Republic of Korea after July 1954.

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