silver star medal

What Are the Top 10 Military Medals?

Top 10 Highest-Ranking U.S. Military Medals

Any medal bestowed upon a service member by the U.S. military is a great honor and an indication of their commitment to their country. However, not all military medals are created equal. There is a hierarchy, with the medals at the top representing the greatest of all honors that any military member can receive.  

But what are the top 10 military medals? To get up to speed on each one, consider a service member’s top military medals, which can be honored.

1. Medal of Honor

There is no higher decoration in the United States military than the Congressional Medal of Honor. This medal has been handed out since the days of the Civil War to military members who “distinguish themselves through conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life and above and beyond the call of duty,” according to the U.S. Department of Defense. 

Of the 40 million men and women who have served in the U.S. military since the Civil War, only 3,525 have received one of the following three versions of the Medal of Honor.

army medal of honorArmy Medal of Honor

Established in 1862, the Army Medal of Honor is the second oldest version of this decoration. The first-ever recipient was Private Jacob Parrott, an 18-year-old member of the 33rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War who was captured following a raid on a confederate train.

Navy/Marine Corps/Coast Guard Medal of Honornavy marines air force medal of honor

The Navy Medal of Honor was the first Medal of Honor, established in 1861 at the onset of the Civil War. Of the only 749 medals bestowed since then, 449 have been awarded to members of the U.S. Navy, 299 have been awarded to U.S. Marines, and just one has been awarded to a member of the U.S. Coast Guard.

air force medal of honorAir Force Medal of Honor

The Air Force Medal of Honor is far newer than its Army and Navy counterparts — it was established in 1965. Most of the 19 handed out have been awarded to Air Force members who served in the Vietnam War.

2. Crosses

The Cross is awarded to those who display “extraordinary heroism” amid military operations that involve either a foreign force that opposes the United States of America or in the service of a friendly foreign force “against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party.” 

This second-highest of the top 10 military medals was first established by President Woodrow Wilson in 1918, the final year of World War I. The Cross also comes in three different versions.

Army Distinguished Service Cross (DSC)army distinguished service cross dsc

The first Cross medal was established for the United States Army. Not only was it used to honor those who served in World War I, but retroactively given to those who displayed extraordinary heroism in service of the United States of America previous to World War I.

navy crossNavy Cross

The Navy Cross was established in February 1919. One of the most notable recipients is Lenah Higbee, the Chief Nurse of the U.S. Navy during World War I and the Spanish Flu epidemic. Higbee was one of the first women to join the Navy Nurse Corps.

Air Force Crossair force cross

Established in 1965, the Air Force Cross was first created to honor those who served in the Vietnam War. However, three men who served in the U.S. Air Force during World War II earned it, and Major Rudolf Anderson, Jr., who was killed during a reconnaissance mission that began the Cuban Missile Crisis.

3. Distinguished Service Medals

The Distinguished Service Medal is the third of the top 10 military medals. It’s bestowed upon those who “distinguished themselves by exceptionally meritorious service to the government in a duty of great responsibility, in combat or otherwise.” 

These medals were first established in 1918 for the U.S. Army. There are now four different versions, each correlating to the specific military branch in which the recipient has served.

army distinguished service medal dsmArmy

This was the first of all Distinguished Service Medals, first awarded on January 12, 1918. A few members of the Allied Armies during World War I, including commanding officers from France, Canada, Australia, Britain, Italy, Belgium, and Serbia, received this award.

navy marines distinguished service medal dsmNavy/Marines

Created in 1919, the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, which is also bestowed upon members of the U.S. Marines, once ranked higher in the top 10 military medals than the Navy Cross. In August of 1942, however, the rankings were reversed.


coast guard distinguished service medalCoast Guard

The Coast Guard Distinguished Service Medal was established in August 1949. Before that, members of the U.S. Coast Guard who met the criteria for the award were given the U.S. Navy Distinguished Service Medal.


air force distinguished service medal dsmAir Force

Before July 1960, the U.S. Army Distinguished Service Medal was also awarded to members of the U.S. Air Force. However, Congress eventually established an award unique to the Air Force. One of the most notable recipients is Colonel Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, who earned the medal twice.

4. Silver Star

silver starThe Silver Star is the first of the top 10 military medals awarded to all military branches. It is awarded to anyone who “is cited for gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States,” either while in military operations which involve conflict with an opposing foreign force or while in service of friendly foreign forces “against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party.”



5. Defense Superior Service Medal (DSSM)

defense superior service medal dssmPresident Gerald Ford established the Defense Superior Service Medal in 1976 to honor officers of the United States military who “perform exceptionally with the Office of the Secretary of Defense, The Joint Chiefs of Staff, special or outstanding command in a defense agency or any other joint activity designated by the secretary.” 

This award is awarded universally across all military branches and is most frequently bestowed upon flag officers, generals, and captains.

6. Legion of Merit Medal (LOM)

legion of merit medal lomEstablished in 1942 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Legion of Merit Medal is awarded to military members and certain foreign allies for “exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services and achievements.” The award comes in four degrees: Chief Commander, Commander, Officer, and Legionnaire.

7. Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC)

Distinguished Flying CrossThe DFC is the only one of the top military medals that exclusively involves aerial flight. It is awarded to members of the military but also civilians and foreign allies. The award requires that the recipient display “heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.” 

This award doesn’t necessarily involve combat. It has been awarded to various astronauts who took part in groundbreaking missions and to innovators in the field of aeronautics.

8. Non-Conflict Heroism Medals

There are a few different non-combat medals awarded for heroism. Although these top military medals don’t require the recipient to have engaged directly in an active conflict, they are awarded only to those who have risked their own lives in the act of heroism.

soldier's medal smSoldier’s Medal (SM)

Awarded to a member of the U.S. military or to a foreign ally who “distinguished himself or herself by heroism not involving conflict with an enemy,” this decoration was first established in 1926.

navy marine corps medalNavy/Marine Corps Medal

This non-conflict heroism medal started in August of 1942. One of the most notable recipients of the award is President John F. Kennedy, who received it for rescuing members of the crew of Motor Torpedo Boat PT-109 during World War II.

airman's medalAirman’s Medal

Taking the place of the Soldier’s Medal for members of the U.S. Air Force in July 1960, the Airman’s Medal is awarded to those who faced danger in the line of duty.

coast guard medalCoast Guard Medal

The Coast Guard Medal was established in 1949 but not awarded until 1958. Individuals who performed heroic acts at great personal risk can earn this medal.

9. Bronze Star Medal (BSM)

bronze starThe Bronze Star Medal was established in 1944. It honors individuals similar to the Silver Star, even having nearly identical criteria. The only difference is that the standard of heroism for the Bronze Star is slightly less than that for the Silver Star.

10. Purple Heart Medal (PH)

purple heartIf asked, “What are the top 10 military medals?” they would likely mention the Purple Heart. This award’s history extends back further than any other, beginning as the Badge of Military Merit in the earliest days of the American military. 

The Purple Heart is awarded to individuals wounded or killed “as result of an act of any opposing armed force, as a result of an international terrorist attack or as a result of military operations while serving as part of a peacekeeping force.”

Honoring Our Service Members

These are the highest decorations in the American military, but many more are awarded to military members and others who have risked their safety in service of our country. Learning about them can give you a better perspective on the courage and heroism of these brave men and women and a greater respect for our military.

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