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Medal of Honour

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Medal of Honour
From left to right, the Army, Navy/Marine Corps and Air Force medals
Awarded by the United States of America
Type Single-grade neck order
Eligibility Military personnel only
Awarded for "...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 while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States..."
Status Currently awarded
Established July 12 1862
First awarded American Civil War
Last awarded June 2 2008
Total awarded 3,465
Next (higher) None
Next (lower) Army - Distinguished Service Cross
Navy - Navy Cross
Air Force - Air Force Cross
Medal of Honour ribbon

The Medal of Honour is the highest military decoration awarded by the United States government. It is bestowed on a member of the United States armed forces who distinguishes himself "…conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States…" Because of its nature, the medal is frequently awarded posthumously.

Members of all branches of the U.S. military are eligible to receive the medal, and each service has a unique design with the exception of the Marine Corps and Coast Guard, which both use the Navy's medal. The Medal of Honour is often presented personally to the recipient or, in the case of posthumous awards, to next of kin, by the President of the United States. Due to its high status, the medal has special protection under U.S. law.

The Medal of Honour is one of two military neck order awards issued by the United States Armed Forces, but is the sole neck order awarded to its members. The other is the Commander's Degree of the Legion of Merit and is only authorized for issue to foreign dignitaries equivalent to a US military chief of staff. While American servicemembers are eligible for the Legion of Merit, they are awarded the lowest degree, "Legionnaire", which is a standard suspended medal.

The medal is frequently, albeit incorrectly, called the Congressional Medal of Honour, stemming from its award by the Department of Defense "in the name of Congress."


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.

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.

Early in the Civil War, a medal for individual valor was proposed (by 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. Public Resolution 82, containing a provision for a Navy Medal of Valor, was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on December 21, 1861. 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." Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles directed the Philadelphia Mint to design the new decoration. 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 Honour, as the Navy version also 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."


Early Army versions of the Medal of Honour.
Early Navy versions of the Medal of Honour.

The Medal of Honour 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.

There is a version of the medal for each branch of the U.S. armed forces: the Army, Navy and Air Force. Since the U.S. Marine Corps is administratively a part of the Department of the Navy, Marines receive the Navy medal. 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 Air Force received the Army version of the medal.

The Coast Guard Medal of Honor, which was distinguished from the Navy medal in 1963, has never been awarded, 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 Honour, Signalman 1st Class Douglas Munro, who was awarded the Navy version for action during the Battle of Guadalcanal.

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 Honour, the U.S. Army and Air Force bestow oak leaf clusters, while the Navy Medal of Honour is worn with gold award stars.

A ribbon which 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 alone, ¼ inch (6 mm) above the centre of the other ribbons. 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.


On October 23, 2003, Pub.L. 107–248 was enacted, modifying 36 U.S.C.  § 903, authorizing a Medal of Honour flag to be presented to recipients of the decoration.

Medal of Honour Flag

The flag was based on a concept by retired Army Special Forces 1SG. Bill Kendall of Jefferson, Iowa, who designed a flag to honor Medal of Honour recipient Captain Darrell Lindsey, a B-26 pilot killed in World War II who was also from Jefferson. Kendall's design of a light blue field emblazoned with thirteen 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 colour of the field and the 13 white stars, arranged in the form of a three bar chevron, consisting of two chevrons of 5 stars and one chevron of 3 stars, replicate the Medal of Honour ribbon. The flag has no set proportions.

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

Awarding the medal

There are two distinct protocols for awarding the Medal of Honour. The first and most common is nomination by a service member in the chain of command, followed by approval at each level of command. The other method is nomination by a member of Congress (generally at the request of a constituent) and approval by a special act of Congress. In either case, the Medal of Honour is presented by the President on behalf of the Congress.

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 Honour 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.

During the Civil War, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton promised a Medal of Honour to every man in the 27th Regiment, Maine Infantry who extended his enlistment beyond the agreed upon date. Many stayed four days extra, and then were discharged. Due to confusion, Stanton awarded a Medal of Honour to all 864 men in the regiment.

In 1916, a board of five Army generals convened by law to review every Army Medal of Honour awarded. The commission, led by Nelson Miles, recommended that the Army rescind 911 medals. 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), Buffalo Bill Cody, and 12 others whose awards were judged frivolous. Dr. Walker's medal was restored posthumously by President Jimmy Carter in 1977. Cody's award was restored in 1989.

Early in the 20th century, the Navy awarded many Medals of Honour for peacetime bravery. For instance, seven sailors aboard the USS Iowa received the medal when a boiler exploded on January 25, 1904. Aboard the USS Chicago in 1901, John Henry Helms received the medal for saving Ishi Tomizi, 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. Thomas J. Ryan received it for saving a woman from the burning Grand Hotel in Yokohama, Japan following the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake.

"Tiffany Cross" version of the Medal of Honour

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 manufactured the medal. "The Tiffany" was first issued in 1919 but was rare and unpopular, partly because it was presented both for combat and noncombat events. As a result, in 1942, the United States Navy reverted to a single Medal of Honour, awarded only for heroism.

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% of the medals earned during and after World War II have been awarded posthumously. Capt. William McGonagle is an exception to the enemy action rule, earning his medal during the USS Liberty incident, which the Israeli government claimed was friendly fire.


A 1993 study commissioned by the Army described systematic racial and religious discrimination in the criteria for awarding medals during World War II. At the time, no Medals of Honour 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 Honour. On January 13, 1997, President Bill Clinton awarded the medal to seven African American World War II veterans. Of these, only Vernon Baker was still alive. A similar study of Asian Americans in 1998 resulted in President Bill Clinton awarding 21 new Medals of Honour in 2000, including 20 to Japanese American members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, among them Senator Daniel Inouye. In 2005, President George W. Bush awarded the Medal of Honour to Jewish veteran and Holocaust survivor Tibor Rubin, who many believed to have been overlooked because of his religion.

Authority and privileges

The grave of a recipient at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

The U.S. Army Medal of Honour was first authorized by a joint resolution of Congress on July 12, 1862. The specific authorizing statute was 10 U.S.C.  § 3741, effective January 26, 1998:

The President may award, and present in the name of Congress, a medal of honour 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.

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

The Medal of Honor confers special privileges on its recipients, both by tradition and by law. By tradition, all other soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen—even higher-ranking officers up to the President of the United States—who are not also recipients of the Medal of Honour initiate the salute. In the event of an officer encountering an enlisted member of the military who has been awarded the Medal of Honour, officers by tradition salute not the person, but the medal itself, thus attempting to time their salute to coincide with the enlisted member's. By law, recipients have several benefits:

  • Each Medal of Honor recipient may have his or her name entered on the Medal of Honour Roll ( 38 U.S.C.  § 1560). Each person whose name is placed on the Medal of Honour Roll is certified to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs as being entitled to receive the special pension of US$1,027 per month. As of December 1, 2004, the pension is subject to cost-of-living increases.
Grave of a recipient at the Memphis National Cemetery
  • Enlisted recipients of the Medal of Honour 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 Honour recipients and their eligible dependents.
  • Children of recipients are eligible for admission to the United States military academies without regard to the quota requirements.
  • Recipients receive a 10% increase in retired pay under 10 U.S.C.  § 3991.
  • Those awarded the medal after October 23, 2002 also receive a Medal of Honor Flag. The law also specifies that all 143 living Medal of Honour recipients receive the flag along with all future recipients.( 14 U.S.C.  § 505).
  • As with all medals, retired personnel may wear the Medal of Honor on "appropriate" civilian clothing. Regulations also specify that recipients of the Medal of Honour 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.

Legal protection

Until late 2006, the Medal of Honour was the only service decoration singled out in federal law to protect it from being imitated or privately sold. The Stolen Valor Act of 2005, enacted December 20, 2006, extended some of these protections to other military awards as well. Now, any false verbal, written or physical claim to an award or decoration authorized for wear by authorized military members or veterans is a federal offense.

The Medal of Honour on display

All Medals of Honour are issued in the original only, by the Department of Defense, to a recipient. 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)), which prescribes a harsher penalty than that for violations concerning other medals. After the Army redesigned its medal in 1903, a patent was issued (United States Patent #D37,236) 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. Violators of this law have been prosecuted. A number of veterans' organizations and private companies devote themselves to exposing those who falsely claim to have received the Medal of Honour.


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

Also that year, Ft 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 actual recipients of the medal; the letter was also published in the local newspaper.

In 2003, Edward Fedora and Gisela Fedora were charged with violating ( 18 U.S.C.  § 704(b)) - Unlawful Sale of a Medal of Honour. They sold medals awarded to U.S. Navy Seaman 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. Edward Fedora, a Canadian businessman, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to prison; Gisela Fedora's status is unknown.


A statue in Louisville, Kentucky honors Medal of Honour recipients from Kentucky.

In total, 3,465 medals have been awarded to 3,446 different people. 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. Since the beginning of World War II, 854 Medals of Honour have been awarded, 528 posthumously. In total, 618 had their medals presented posthumously.

The first Army Medal of Honour was awarded to Private Jacob Parrott during the American Civil War for his role in the Andrews Raid. The only female Medal of Honour 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.

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 Honour was presented to the British Unknown Warrior by General Pershing on October 17, 1921; later the U.S. Unknown Soldier was reciprocally awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain's highest award for gallantry, on November 11, 1921. Apart from these few exceptions, Medals of Honour 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 Honour, with a majority awarded for actions in the American Civil War. Since 1900, only four have been awarded to Canadians. In the Vietnam War, Peter C. Lemon was the only Canadian recipient of the Medal of Honour.

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 133
Vietnam War 246 Battle of Mogadishu 2
Operation Iraqi Freedom 4 Operation Enduring Freedom 1
Peacetime 193 Unknowns 9
By branch of service
Service Awards
Army 2404
Navy 746
Marines 297
Air Force 17
Coast Guard 1

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 Honour for the same action.

Name Service Rank War Notes
Frank Baldwin Army First Lieutenant, Captain American Civil War, Indian Wars
Smedley Butler Marine Corps Major Vera Cruz, Haiti
John Cooper Navy Coxswain American Civil War
Louis Cukela Marine Corps Sergeant World War I Both awarded for same action.
Thomas Custer Army Second Lieutenant American Civil War
Daniel Daly Marine Corps Private, Gunnery Sergeant Boxer Rebellion, Haiti
Henry Hogan Army First Sergeant Indian Wars
Ernest A. Janson Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant World War I Both awarded for same action. Received the Army MOH under the name Charles F. Hoffman.
John J. Kelly Marine Corps Private World War I Both awarded for same action.
John King Navy Watertender Peacetime
Matej Kocak Marine Corps Sergeant World War I Both awarded for same action.
John Lafferty Navy Fireman, First Class Fireman American Civil War, peacetime
John C. McCloy Navy Coxswain, Chief Boatswain Boxer Rebellion, Vera Cruz
Patrick Mullen Navy Boatswain's Mate Civil War
John H. Pruitt Marine Corps Corporal World War I Both awarded for same action.
Robert Sweeney Navy Ordinary Seaman Peacetime
Albert Weisbogel Navy Captain Peacetime
Louis Williams Navy Captain Peacetime
William Wilson Army Sergeant Indian Wars


For actions occurring since the withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam in 1973, the Medal of Honour has been awarded seven times, all of them posthumously. The first two were earned by U.S. Army Special Forces 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. Two others were awarded during the Iraq War, to Army Sergeant First Class Paul Ray Smith and Marine Corps Corporal Jason Dunham. In 2005, a posthumous Medal of Honour was awarded to Sergeant First Class Smith for actions in Operation Iraqi Freedom; his medal was presented to his survivors. In April 2003, Smith organized the defense of a prisoner of war holding area which was attacked by a company-sized Iraqi force, personally manning a machine gun under enemy fire. In 2007, President George W. Bush awarded Marine Corporal Dunham, of Scio, New York, the Medal of Honour posthumously for his bravery in Iraq during a combat mission during which he threw himself on a grenade to save his fellow Marines during an action near the Syrian border in April 2004.

On October 22 2007, President George W. Bush presented the award to the family of Navy SEAL Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy for his actions in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2005.

On March 3, 2008, President Bush presented the Medal of Honour posthumously to Master Sergeant Woodrow W. Keeble for his actions during the Korean War. His family had waged a long campaign for the medal after the recommendation was twice lost during the conflict. Master Sergeant Keeble, who passed away in 1982, was the first member of the Sioux Native American tribe to be awarded the medal. This was the 49th belated Medal of Honour award since 1979.

On April 8, 2008, President Bush presented the Medal of Honour to the parents of Navy MA2 Michael A. Monsoor (SEAL), who had jumped onto a live grenade thrown by a Sunni insurgent in order to save the lives of two fellow SEALs who, unlike him, had no route to escape the blast.

On June 2, 2008, President Bush presented the Medal of Honour to the parents of Army PFC Ross McGinnis. McGinnis, a Humvee gunner patrolling Baghdad’s Adhamiyah district, shielded his fellow platoon members from a grenade blast in November 2006.

Similar decorations within the United States

The following United States decorations bear similar names to the Medal of Honour, but are separate awards with different criteria for issuance.

  • Cardenas Medal of Honour: decoration of the Revenue Cutter Service, merged into the United States Coast Guard
  • Chaplain's Medal of Honour: awarded posthumously for a single action to four recipients
  • Congressional Gold Medal
  • Congressional Space Medal of Honor: despite its name, not equal to the Medal of Honour
  • Presidential Medal of Freedom: the highest civilian honour

Several United States law enforcement decorations also bear the name "Medal of Honour". The Public Safety Officer Medal of Valor, established by Congress in 2001, "the highest national award for valor by a public safety officer", is also awarded by the President.

  • The Grand Army of the Republic's medal can look similar to the Medal of Honour, particularly in photos or on gravestones See picture on website.
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