The Medal of HonorOnly 3,521 Medals of Honor have been awarded since its creation during the civil war, and over half were bestowed posthumously. It’s the most prestigious service medal in the armed forces and is traditionally presented to recipients personally by the President of the United States. It’s the only military medal worn around the neck and is earned through distinguished gallantry, bravery, the risking of one’s own life in combat and performing above and beyond the call of duty.
Every medal, decoration and challenge coin in the military is earned through courage, honor and sacrifice. They are never just given away. 3,521 unique stories are connected to the Medal of Honor, and taking a closer look at one of them is the best place to start when looking for the meaning behind military medals.
Master Sergeant Roy BenavidezMaster Sergeant Roy Benavidez earned the Medal of Honor after volunteering to reinforce a single American unit under fire from a 1,000-man NVA infantry battalion while serving in Vietnam. By the time he was carried back to camp, Benavidez had saved a large number of wounded soldiers, fought off a number of enemies with his bare hands, and was presumed dead because of the injuries he had incurred in the firefight. But he was not dead.
He somehow survived through a collapsed lung, seven gunshot wounds, lacerations all over his arms from enemy bayonets, and shrapnel lodged in his head, shoulder, buttocks, legs and feet. Originally, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross because his superiors feared he would die before they could award him for his incredible acts of valor and sacrifice. His award was upgraded to the Medal of Honor a few years after his recovery.
This is just one story, but it captures the essence of what it takes to earn the Medal of Honor. Benavidez’s actions required more courage than most people will ever claim to possess and a selfless intention that is even more rare. He was not thinking about earning the Medal of Honor when he jumped into the fight. He was thinking about helping his fellow soldiers.
A Closer Look at The Pyramid of HonorThe hierarchy of military medals for gallantry, valor and heroism is sometimes known as the Pyramid of Honor. The Medal of Honor is the highest form of recognition followed by the Distinguished Service Cross (Army), Air Force Cross (Air Force) and the Navy Cross (Navy). Each of these awards is second only to the Medal of Honor in their respective branches of service.
The Silver Star Medal is the third-highest combat decoration awarded for gallantry in service and is consistent across all branches of service. Following the Silver Star is the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, the oldest military medal still in use today. Each of these medals is a symbol of incredible self-sacrifice, courage and achievement. To earn any of them, specific criteria must be met before consideration.
While there are set standards for earning any of these medals, their meaningful weight is derived from the stories of the people who have earned them, like Master Sergeant Roy Benavidez. They are more than just a symbol of courage and valor. They are a reminder of an individual’s self-sacrifice and heroism in combat.
Personal Challenge CoinsChallenge coins are not as formal as the military medals listed thus far. Celebrations like the Airman’s Coin at the end of Air Force basic training use challenge coins in ceremonial fashion, however, custom coins are usually much more personal. Military leaders mint coins for the soldiers in their command and hand them out to recognize excellent service and to foster a sense of camaraderie among the ranks.
The coins are personalized to represent a specific unit or team by incorporating their emblems and mottos in the design. Each one symbolizes teamwork, dedication, bravery and accomplishment, and they bind squadmates together by representing a common goal and all of their shared experiences. Soldiers collect challenge coins throughout their careers, and each one tells a unique story just like any other type of military medal.
The personal touches added to challenge coins are where they derive their meaning. They are not only something a soldier earns but also something they share with other members of their unit. A challenge coin is a physical representation of a team’s identity, and they are specially made for that team’s personal use.
What Is the Meaning Behind Military Medals?The true meaning behind these and all other military medals is more than just words. Master Sergeant Benavidez was not thinking about earning any sort of medal, let alone the Medal of Honor, when he decided to jump into the fight. He was thinking about helping his fellow soldiers.
The same can be said for soldiers receiving any kind of medal from the distinguished Pyramid of Honor all the way down to the humble challenge coins carried by squadmates into battle. Military decorations are earned through incredible courage, but their personal meaning is a sense of belonging and camaraderie. They represent a soldier’s dedication to their teammates and their belonging within a squad more than anything else.