military medals and ribbons

A Quick Guide to Military Medals and Ribbons

To the untrained eye or to someone who hasn’t served, understanding military medals and ribbons, and their nuances can be a challenging task.  We are going to break it down step-by-step to make things a little easier and a little less confusing, especially if you haven’t served and are putting together medals, awards, and ribbons for a loved one.

Military Medals:

Size of Military Medals

There are two sizes of medals, full size and miniature.  The miniature medals are a one-half scaled size of full size and are worn on casual clothes as well as all formal dress and dinner dress uniforms on the wearer’s left breast.  Full size medals are worn on uniforms and dress wear on the left breast as well.

Miniature and full size medals carry the same order of precedence, however miniature medals allow more medals per row, generally four to six medals per row.  Every branch of the military has different specifications for full size and miniature medals.

When to Wear Anodized and Standard Medals

Both miniature and full size medals come in two finishes, anodized and standard.  Anodized medals are gold-plated and shiny, and are usually worn on mess dress and dinner dress uniforms at Balls, although they are appropriate for any formal event such as weddings and funerals.

Standard finish medals have the same finish as your originally awarded medals.  These are the traditional and more commonly worn medals and are appropriate for all occasions.

Distinguishing Between the Different Types of Medals

There are three main divisions of medals: decoration, service, and commemorative.  All three medals have distinguishable differences, purposes, and requirements.  The definitive differences of the three medals are that decoration and service medals are mounted in racks for wear, while commemorative medals are not.

Service medals are campaign-specific and conflict-specific medals that are awarded on a DD-214 and have a rounder medallion and generally have the words ‘Service Medal‘ in the name of the medal. They are awarded for good conduct, achievement, and participation in a conflict.

Examples of these types of medals are: Coast Guard Distinguished Service Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal, and Kuwaiti Medal for the Liberation of Kuwait.

Decoration medals are higher up in the order of precedence, denoting acts of gallantry, valor, and meritorious service.  The shape of the medallion is a great signifier of a decoration medal; decoration medals have distinguished shapes such as stars and crosses.

Purchasing decoration medals isn’t as easy as commemorative or service medals.

Purchasing Different Types of Medals

At Medals of America, we abide by the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, signed into law by President George W. Bush, protecting the valor and integrity of .  For medals higher in precedence, such as the Silver Star, Navy Cross, and Defense Distinguished Service Medal, proof of valor is required. The form of proof we accept is a DD-214, news article, any validated visual proof, is needed to purchase.

The tell-tale sign of a commemorative medal is the medal will have the word ‘Commemorative’ in the title and is not awarded during or after service or listed on a DD-214.  Commemorative medals are not authorized for wear via the Department of Defense but serve as a decoration to honor a particular conflict, action, or service.  They are not worn on uniforms or built into medals racks but are a great addition to a shadow box or collection.

Medal of Honor

The Medal of Honor is the most prestigious award in the military.  Each branch of the military has its own design for the medallion with the same requirement, “For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of one’s own life, above and beyond the call of duty, in action involving actual conflict with an opposing armed force”.

The Medal of Honor was established during the Civil War and an astounding 1,523 Medals were awarded, most awarded after the War.  This time-honored tradition started during the Civil War and is still practiced today, over 150 years later. In total there have been 3,500 Medals of Honor awarded across all branches of the United States Military.


Size of Ribbons:

There are multiple sizes of mounted ribbons: traditional slide-on ribbons, miniature ribbons, and mil-thin ribbons. Each set of ribbons is always mounted to military specifications and has it’s time and place to be worn, as explained below.

Slide on ribbons are the only ribbons we sell individually and as a mounted piece.  The slide on ribbons can be mounted in-house by Medals of America, or if you’re feeling ambitious you can mount your own by ordering holding bars, individual slide on ribbons, and attachments.

Mini-ribbons are a smaller version of slide-on ribbons but are not authorized for wear on uniforms but can be worn on civilian clothes like polos to work or family barbecues on the weekend.  They’re a popular choice to put on hats, lapels of blazers when out to dinner and polos at work to display pride in your service.

Mil-thin ribbons are a type of ribbon trademarked by Medals of America. Mil-thin ribbons are mounted as a solid rack, lay completely flat, and are worn on uniforms and always mounted to military specifications.

Ribbon-Only Awards

Ribbon-only awards are a type of award that is only awarded in the ribbon form because there isn’t a medal associated with that award. Each branch has different regulations on wearing ribbon-only awards when wearing ribbons and full-sized medals.

Examples of ribbon only awards are: Combat Action, Army Service Ribbon, Navy Sea Service Deployment Ribbon, and Air Force Longevity Service Award.

Unit Citations also fall under the category of ribbon-only awards and are worn on the uniform different ways by each branch.  They are ribbons decorated by a gold border and follow the same precedence as ribbon-only awards.  Exclusively, the Army wears unit citation awards only on the right chest and other military medals and ribbons on the left chest, separating the unit citation awards.

If you still have any questions regarding the differences of military medals and ribbons, don’t hesitate to contact us to speak to a specialist.