Top 12 Military Awards for Valor

In today’s post, I’m going to share what I believe are the top 12 military awards for valor. 

Initially, I was going to make this a top 10 article, but as I performed my research, I felt that I had to add two to that number.

While there are a good amount of different military awards, not all can be considered for valor.

Definition of Valor: strength of mind or spirit that enables a person to encounter danger with firmness: personal bravery

Some of these military awards for valor are not in the order you would wear them on your uniform, but I believe the valor level is in this order. You may disagree with my order and that is okay. I even ask that you state in the comment section the order you would have, and why you would have them that way.

military awards for valor

Top 12 Military Awards for Valor

Okay, starting with #12, I am giving the top 12 military awards for valor.

# 12: Bronze Star

The Bronze Star can be awarded for military actions that do not have “valor” attached to them, so the Department of Defense recognizes valor instances by giving a “V” device when valor is a part of the award.

The Bronze Star is awarded when military personnel distinguishes his/her self with heroic or meritorious service:

  • while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States
  • while involved in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force
  • serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party.

Colonel Russell P. “Red” Reeder conceived the idea of the Bronze Star Medal in 1943; he believed it would aid morale if captains of companies or of batteries could award a medal to deserving people serving under them. Reeder felt another medal was needed as a ground equivalent of the Air Medal, and suggested calling the proposed new award the “Ground Medal”. ~ Wikipedia

# 11: Coast Guard Medal

This medal is awarded to members of the Coast Guard who distinguish themselves with acts of heroism and bravery that is not part of conflict with an enemy.

In most cases, these were awarded when trying to rescue people in grave danger.

Congress authorized the establishment of the Coast Guard Medal (Public Law 207 of the 81st Congress) on 4 August 1949. The actual medal was designed by Thomas Hudson Jones of the United States Army’s Institute of Heraldry. As designed, the seal of the Coast Guard appears in the center of a bronze octagon.  The seal is contained within a border of continuous cable.

The octagon shape is copied from the Soldier’s Medal and the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, and the seal in the center refers to Coast Guard service. The border of continuous cable refers to both naval service and perfection of ideals in the service of man. The medal’s ribbon is decorated with central and edge stripes of light blue and centered on either half of the ribbon is a field of white containing three red stripes. The colors were adapted from those of the Coast Guard seal. ~ History USCG

# 10: Airman’s Medal

Similar to the Coast Guard Medal, the Airman’s Medal is awarded to members of the Air Force who risk their life in a heroic act. This may or may not involve the saving of lives, but putting their own life in danger for service to our country.

Airman’s Medal, awarded to any member of the Armed Forces of the US or of a friendly nation who, while serving in any capacity with the US Air Force after the date of the award’s authorization, shall have distinguished himself or herself by a heroic act, usually at the voluntary risk of his or her life but not involving actual combat. ~

# 9: Navy And Marine Corps Medal

Similar to the above 2 medals, this medal carries the same prescription. It involves life endangering acts that helped to serve our nation.

Most notably, President John F. Kennedy was awarded this when he commanded PT-109.

Since the mid-20th century, the Navy and Marine Corps Medal has been awarded instead of the Silver or Gold Lifesaving Medal, for rescues at sea. This is most closely associated with the establishment of a plethora of decorations that are of higher prestige than the Lifesaving medal.

The Navy and Marine Corps Medal was first bestowed during World War II. Perhaps one of the most famous recipients was President John F. Kennedy, who was awarded the medal while serving as commanding officer of Motor Torpedo Boat PT-109 during World War II. ~ Military-Ranks

# 8: Soldier’s Medal

While this is equivalent to the 3 above, I put it lower since the Army’s version is the oldest. It was established in 1926 and is also awarded to Army personnel who risk their life in service that does not involve actual conflict.

While the award was created by an act of Congress on July 2nd, 1926 the first awards were not presented until October 17th, 1927. Any American service member who has received the award and is eligible for retirement pay will receive a 10% increase in their retirement pay, and amount that is equal to that as if they had earned the Distinguished Service Cross. The largest issuing of the award came in 2001 following the terrorist attack on the Pentagon. 28 service-members received the award for their actions while risking their lives to assist their fellow soldiers. ~

# 7: Distinguished Flying Cross

This is awarded to members of the United States military who show extraordinary heroism while in flight.

I put this here because just getting in an aircraft during military operations is heroic in my opinion and anything more is magnificent.

The Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) is our nation’s highest award for extraordinary aerial achievement. As a valor decoration, it ranks fourth in order of precedence, and is awarded to recipients for heroism while participating in an aerial flight.  The Distinguished Flying Cross medal was established by an Act of Congress on July 2, 1926 and the first Distinguished Flying Cross citations were presented to the Pan American Good Will Flight pilots on 2 May 1927 by President Calvin Coolidge. President Coolidge also presented the first Distinguished Flying Cross medal, on 11 June 1927, to then Captain Charles A. Lindbergh of the Army Air Corps Reserve, for his solo flight of 33 ½ hours and 3600 statute miles. ~ DFC Society


# 6: Purple Heart

I even considered having this prestigious military award higher on the list… The Purple Heart is awarded to service members who have been wounded or killed while in combat.

Any soldier who has a Purple Heart has shown his/her valor and bravery.

Thanks to Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the Purple Heart officially received its modern-day look and name in 1932.

MacArthur, who wanted to refresh and rename the award in time for the bicentennial of George Washington’s birthday, worked with the Washington Commission of Fine Arts and Elizabeth Will, a heraldry specialist in the Army’s Office of the Quartermaster General, to design the medal. ~

winston churchill

# 5: Silver Star

This is awarded to United States military personnel who displayed gallantry and valor in action against an enemy of the United States.

Any one who wears a Silver Star has every right to be proud of their service.

The Silver Star Awards are the United States’ third-highest award exclusively for military operations involving conflict and ranks fifth in the precedence of military awards behind the Medal of Honor, the Crosses (Distinguished Service Cross; Navy Cross; and Air Force Cross), the Defense Distinguished Service Medal (awarded by the Department of Defense), and the Distinguished Service Medals of the various branches of service.

It is the highest award for combat valor that is not unique to any specific branch; it has been bestowed by the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marines. It may be given by any one of the individual services to not only their own members, but to members of other branches of service, foreign allies, and even to civilians for “gallantry in action” in support of combat missions of the United States military. ~ Home of Heroes

# 4: Air Force Cross

This award was implemented soon after the Air Force became a separate entity. It is awarded to personnel who showed extraordinary heroism in the face of battle but still not justified for the highest award. One person has been awarded the Air Force Cross 3 times: Colonel James Kasler was a veteran of World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.

The Air Force Cross is awarded for extraordinary heroism, which does not justify award of the Medal of Honor. The Air Force Cross was established by Congress on July 6, 1960 as a replacement for the Distinguished Service Cross when the award was made by Air Force Authority. The First Air Force Cross was awarded posthumously in 1962. ~

# 3: Navy Cross

This award is similar in presentation to the Air Force Cross in that it is given for extraordinary heroism in combat where the Medal of Honor merits were not reached. It is awarded primarily to members of the Navy, Marines and Coast Guard but has also been awarded to members of other military branches.

The Navy Cross was established by an act of Congress (Public Law 253) on 4 February 1919 “to any person who, while in the naval service of the United States, since the sixth day of April, nineteen hundred and seventeen, has distinguished, or who shall hereafter distinguish, himself by extraordinary heroism or distinguished service in the line of his profession, such heroism or service not being sufficient to justify the award of a medal of honor or a distinguished service medal.” On 7 August 1942, Congress limited the Navy Cross to combat-only recognition and elevated its status to just below the Medal of Honor.  ~ Navy History 

# 2: Distinguished Service Cross

This is the 2nd highest award that can be given to the United States Army and like the Air Force and Navy Crosses, it is given for valor and heroism in combat but is just below the ability to get the Medal of Honor.

The Distinguished Service Cross was first awarded during World War I. In addition, a number of awards were made for actions before World War I. In many cases, these were to soldiers who had received a Certificate of Merit for gallantry which, at the time, was the only other honor for gallantry the Army could award, or recommend a Medal of Honor. Others were belated recognition of actions in the Philippines, on the Mexican Border and during the Boxer Rebellion. ~ Military Wiki

medal of honor

# 1: The Congressional Medal Of Honor

Naturally, this is the #1 military award for valor in the United States military.

Many recipients are not alive to receive this award. It is presented by the President of the United States and is given far above and beyond in service and defense of our country.

Any member who has the Medal of Honor showed great valor and bravery.

The Congressional Medal of Honor is the highest award for any man or woman serving in the United States military. The medal reflects a person’s willingness to risk life and limb for this country and has its roots in America’s deadliest war, the Civil War. ~

Final Thoughts

That is my opinion of the top 12 military awards for valor. Do you agree or would you have a different order? Please post your comments below to let me know what you think. Thanks.

Other posts you may enjoy:
  1. The Army Distinguished Service Cross: 10 Things You Should Know About It
  2. The Purple Heart: 10 Things You Should Know
  3. 17 Vietnam War Soldiers Who Made A Difference
chuck holmes

Chuck Holmes
Former Army Major (resigned)

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1 thought on “Top 12 Military Awards for Valor”

  1. William Scarbrough

    Personal who receives the Airman’s Medal are entitled to 10% more retirement pay for the acts of heroism. They received the medal for risking their life for another. If your citation was written without the word extreme heroism, then you don’t qualify for the 10% additional pay. It seems subjective to me what the line is for extreme. Anytime you risk your own life should be extreme enough. There are other medals that can be given for life saving that doesn’t require a risk in ones life. Saving a choking victim is one example. I believe the requirements for the word extreme to be written should be removed to receive the 10% additional pay. I was only 18 years old for 4 months and an AB in rank when I was awarded the Airman’s Medal. I believe at that time in 1980 I was the youngest and lowest ranking Airman to have received this award. I don’t know how to research it. My question is who or what criteria is used for extreme?

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