The Differences Between a Military Decoration and a Military Medal

If you’ve ever looked at the left side of a soldier’s uniform, you’ll see colorful medals, ribbons, badges and insignias. Have you ever wondered what the meaning is behind each of these colorful and ornate items? All military medals, ribbons and badges are collectively known as military decorations, but each type has its own special importance and symbolism. Let’s take a look at the differences between each one to help you get a better understanding of how members of the armed forces show their character, experiences and contributions, and their specific standing and rank, displayed proudly on their uniforms.

Award Types

Medals vs. Decorations

As their name suggests, military medals are actual medallions suspended from ribbons, used to recognize acts of heroism, bravery, achievements or participation in specific military conflicts. The terms “decoration” and “medal” are used almost interchangeably today, but there are recognizable distinctions between them. Medals are awarded for good conduct, participation in a particular campaign or expedition or a noncombatant service and normally come in a round shape. Decorations, are awarded for acts of gallantry and meritorious service and usually have distinctive (and often unique) shapes such as crosses or stars.

Campaign or service medals are issued to individuals who participate in particular campaigns or periods of service for which a medal is authorized. The fact that some very prestigious awards have the word “medal” in their titles (e.g.: Medal of Honor), can cause some confusion.

Medals can be divided into three main categories: individual, service, and campaign. Individual medals are presented as recognition for acts of heroism and achievement. Service medals recognize a military member’s service or longevity–for example, each services’ Good Conduct Medal, the National Defense Service Medal and Korea Defense Service Medal. Then, the latter is for participation in a specific military operation or service in a geographical theater during a designated expedition, campaigns or wars. In general, individual medals, such as the Congressional Medal of Honor, Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart medals, carry a higher precedence over service and campaign medals.


  • RibbonsAll military medals have a corresponding ribbon and are displayed according to specific protocols and regulations and are service-specific. You might choose to wear your medals on your uniform as part of a mounted medal set or wear your ribbons as part of a ribbon rack. In other words, one can wear the Service Cross as a medal or a ribbon depending on the type of uniform and occasion. To highlight, the Combat Action Ribbon and Overseas Service Ribbon do not have a corresponding medal and is only displayed with other ribbons. On the other hand, unit citations like the Presidential Unit Citation do have not an associated medal, but are worn over the right breast pocket when medals are worn on the left.
  • Badges—Though still considered decorations, military badges differ from medals and ribbons because they characterize a military member’s rating, qualifications and specific skills or accomplishments in their service or career field. Badges are usually displayed as metal devices and, like insignia, indicate an individual’s job specialty or proficiency within its service.
  • Military Insignia or Rank—Military insignia is either made of cloth or metal depending on the type of uniform they are affixed to and signify one’s rank and status. For many soldiers, receiving a new rank or promotion is a very proud moment and one that signifies proven leadership skills and accomplishment.

Awards Classes

  • Personal Decorations—The Secretary of Defense for Manpower and Reserve Affairs defines personal decorations as a class of awards given to a member of the military to signify specific acts they have completed. Personal decorations can be medals, ribbons and other types of decorations. Examples of personal decorations include the Congressional Medal of Honor (the highest and most prestigious personal decoration that can be awarded to a member of the military), the Service Cross and the Distinguished Service medals, as well as the Combat Action Ribbon.
  • Service Awards—Service awards include medals and ribbons that are awarded for time in service and other time-related occurrences–i.e., the U.S. Air Force’s Longevity Ribbon or each services’ Good Conduct Medal. Other awards within this class include the Special Service Medal, the Campaign Medal and the Reserve Medal. 
  • Training Awards—Unsurprisingly, training awards are presented to those who have completed certain entry level or advanced individual training–i.e., basic training, occupational training and professional leadership programs. Members of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard earn awards in this class–i.e., the Army Service Ribbon, the Air Force Training Ribbon or the Coast Guard Basic Training Honor Graduate Ribbon, as well as the Army Non commissioned Officer Professional Development Ribbon.
  • Unit Awards—All five branches of the U.S. military have specific unit awards to recognize specific accomplishments of entire groups and commands. Some examples of unit awards include the Presidential Unit Citation, the Efficiency Award, the Joint Meritorious Unit Award and the Army/Navy/Air Force Unit Commendations, generally framed in a rectangular gold wreath. In the Army, unit awards are worn on the right side, opposite of individual, service and campaign awards. The Navy and Marine Corps integrate unit awards into their individual ribbon stack, except when they wear their medals. Then, the unit awards are worn on the right, like the Army.
  • Foreign Decorations and Awards—Foreign decorations and awards are medals, ribbons and badges presented or awarded to U.S. military service members by non-U.S. governments and military units. There are certain foreign decorations that military members are authorized to wear on their uniform, such as the United Nations Medal, the NATO Medal, the Republic of Vietnam Gallantry medal, the Kuwait Liberation Medal-Kuwait and certain nations’ parachutist wings or foreign jump wings.
  • Marksmanship Awards—This class of awards is presented to military members who excel in precision shooting, marksmanship competitions and marksmanship programs within their military branch or joint service marksmanship competitions. Military members may be honored for their skills with small arms, pistols and rifles, with awards such as the Distinguished Marksman Award, Expert Rifleman Award and Pistol Shot Award.
  • Honorary Civilian Awards—Honorary awards are presented to civilians and civilian military employees for exceptional achievement and service. The highest federal honorary award is the Army’s Decoration for Exceptional Civilian Service, which is awarded to a civilian who contributes in a significant way to the Department of the Army. Other honorary awards include the Meritorious Civilian Service Award and the Superior Civilian Service Award.


Displaying Decorations Proudly

Members of the armed forces who exhibit superior valor, sacrifice, skill and leadership should be proud to display their military decorations as part of a medal or ribbon rack on their uniform. Think of each collection of medals, ribbons, badges and patches as a diary of sorts for members of the military—they tell the story of their personal and group accomplishments, from completion of basic training to overseas deployment and their honorable discharge from service to a grateful nation.