Keeping track of all the different medals, ribbons, and other accolades handed out in the USAF isn’t easy. That’s only complicated by the fact that each branch has its medals instead of sharing honors.
That’s as true of the Air Force as any other service. Many Air Force medals have direct counterparts throughout all other military branches, while others are unique to airmen. You can’t become an expert on Navy honors in an afternoon, but you can learn about the most important awards with just a few minutes of your time.
The Air Force Cross
The Medal of Honor is the most prestigious military medal awarded in the United States. For airmen, the following highest honor is the Air Force Cross. Established by Congress in 1960, the Air Force Cross has equivalent honors in all four major combat branches. The Air Force Cross is reserved exclusively for those who show exemplary service in combat.
The Distinguished Service Cross
The DSC is as well-regarded an honor as the Air Force Cross. Still, it can be extended to members of the Navy whose achievements aren’t necessarily reflected in a combat scenario. Rarer is the Defense Distinguished Service Cross, which is awarded directly by the Department of Defense and can be awarded to a member of any military branch.
The Aerial Achievement Medal
Exclusive to the Air Force is the aerial achievement medal assigned to airmen who perform acts of exceptional talent in aerial combat. The requirements to receive this medal are more specific than more general-achievement medals, but it’s available for both traditional pilots and unmanned drone operators.
The Air Medal
While it’s technically not exclusive to the Air Force, the Air Medal constitutes the highest honor for aerial combat achievement. The criteria for achievement require some serious flight hours both in and out of battle. It’s rare to see an airman wear it and rarer still to see it worn by someone who isn’t an experienced veteran.
Air Force Achievement Medal
The Air Force achievement medal is far easier to get than the aerial achievement of air medals, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t an honor worth being proud of. These are designated for individuals who haven’t earned a commendation medal but have still demonstrated values worth commemorating.
Outstanding Airman of the Year
The Outstanding Airman of the Year award’s rarity makes it one of the most competitive awards in the Air Force. The full version of the medal is assigned to only a dozen airmen each year, although a less flashy version of the ribbon and medal is awarded to anyone nominated.
Air Force Good Conduct Medal
While dramatic acts of courage may grab the public attention, it’s small acts of sacrifice and duty that keep our republic together. That’s what the good conduct medal is designed to reward. Airmen who fulfill the requirements of good conduct for three years of peace of one year of war can receive the good conduct medal. After being briefly discontinued in the mid-2000s, the good conduct medal is again being awarded by the Air Force.
A Whole Universe of Air Force Medals
That’s just scratching the surface of awards handed out by the military. From campaign medals to badges for sharpshooting, the Air Force is conscientious about making sure that their members’ achievements are appropriately credited. Whether you’re looking to collect or you’re simply wondering how best to honor service members and veterans, it could be worth your time to dig deeper and learn more about the history of these awards.