Medals and Honors

The President, Congress, and every branch of the U.S. military gives awards and honors to highlight the outstanding achievements of our citizens. Here is a partial list of some of the most common awards and honors.

Civilian Medals and Honors

The Presidential Medal of Freedom – As the highest civilian award in the United States, the Presidential Medal of Freedom is given for an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the U.S., to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors. It may also be awarded to members of the military and non-citizens. First awarded in 1963, the medal can be additionally awarded “With Distinction” for especially important service. See a list of recipients from 1993 on.

The Congressional Gold Medal – The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest civilian award given by Congress. It is awarded for achievements that have a major impact on American history or culture.. Awardees can be civilian or military personnel and are not required to be citizens. This medal is also given in silver and bronze. This medal was first awarded to Founding Father George Washington by the Second Continental Congress in 1776. See a list of recipients.

The National Medal of Arts – This is the highest award given to artists and arts patrons by the United States government. The National Medal of Arts is awarded to individuals or groups who “are deserving of special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to the excellence, growth, support, and availability of the arts in the United States.” Recipients are selected by the National Endowment for The Arts, and this medal was first awarded in 1984. See a list of recipients.

The Kennedy Center Honors – Awarded by the Kennedy Center’s Board of Trustees, which is headed by the First Lady, this award is given by the President to honor outstanding contributions to U.S. art, music, theatre, film, and culture. This award was first given in 1978. See a list of recipients.

The National Medal of Science – The National Medal of Science was established by the 86th Congress in 1959 as a Presidential award to be given to individuals “deserving of special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to knowledge in the physical, biological, mathematical, or engineering sciences.” In 1980 Congress expanded this recognition to include the social and behavioral sciences. See a list of recipients.

The National Humanities Medal – This award honors individuals or groups whose work has “deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens’ engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects.” This medal succeeds the Charles Frankel Prize and was first awarded in 1997. See a list of recipients.

The National Medal of Technology and Innovation – This medal is awarded by the President of the United States to American inventors and innovators who have made significant contributions to the development of new and important technology. The award may be granted to a specific person, to a group of people, or to an entire organization or corporation. This medal was first awarded in 1985 as the National Medal of Technology. See a list of recipients.

Military Medals

Medal of Honor – The Medal of Honor is the nation’s highest military award, . bestowed upon members of the U.S. armed forces for acts of valor in combat. It’s presented by the President in the name of Congress and was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln in December 1861. There are three different designs for the Medal of Honor award: Army, Air Force, and Navy versions. (The Navy MOH can also be presented to Marines and Coast Guard members.) The award is given based on “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.”

The Army’s Distinguished Service Cross, the Navy Cross, and the Air Force Cross – The military cross awards are presented to U.S. military members for extraordinary heroism in combat. In each branch, they are the second highest military service awards. The Navy Cross can be presented to Marines and to Coast Guard members serving under the Department of the Navy. A new Coast Guard Cross was created by Congress in 2010 for extraordinary heroism in action while not operating under the Navy.

Silver Star – Awarded for gallantry in action, the Silver Star is the third-highest award for members of the armed forces in the U.S. It was first established in 1918 as the Citation Star but in 1932 it was replaced by a new design.

Other Notable Military Medals

Distinguished Flying Cross – Established by the Air Corps Act in 1926, the Distinguished Flying Cross is awarded for “heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.” The first award was given to Captain Charles Lindbergh in 1927 for his transatlantic flight from New York to Paris.

Purple Heart – The act of giving U.S. military awards was established by General George Washington on August 7, 1782, when he created the Badge of Military Merit, the predecessor of the Purple Heart, which was established in 1932. The Purple Heart (PDF, Download Adobe Reader)is given to soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guard members wounded or killed in action in defense of the nation.