"May 2019: Congressional Medal of Honor Fraud" by Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is marked with CC PDM 1.0

The various branches of the military sometimes have varying reputations for the depth and rigor of their bureaucracy. And while that can sometimes create frustrating red tape and the occasional bit of protocol that doesn’t make sense, it also means that practically every critical moment in your service is documented.

That’s what military medals are meant for, after all. Because while military models do offer some shiny bragging rights, they’re just as crucial for documenting your time in the armed services. Whether you’ve performed an unprecedented act of bravery, reached a new milestone in technical proficiency, or simply demonstrated commendable and consistent success, there’s a medal to document your progress as an active service member.

Service crosses and distinguished service medals

Two of the most well-recognized medals are the service cross and the distinguished service medal. The Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard all have versions of the service cross, while the distinguished service medal is handed out in every branch of the armed forces.

Fundamentally, these two types of medals commemorate similar circumstances. The cross is awarded to those who show exceptional heroism in battle, while distinguished service medals are extended to those who perform excellent service to their country in or out of combat.

Lower achievement medals

Service crosses and distinguished service medals are rare honors to receive, and many will simply never be in a situation that warrants their handling. But there are still plenty of medals that are designed to celebrate achievement — even when it’s meted out over more extended periods.

Meritorious service, commendation and achievement medals are all awarded for making meaningful contributions to the military effort during one’s time in the service. Over a long period in the armed forces, it’s not at all uncommon to acquire quite a few of these various personal medals, and that can often mean expanding your ribbon rack to accommodate those new accolades.

Unit awards

In addition to personal achievements, there are a wide variety of different awards and medals that can be handed out to commemorate whole units’ achievements. These include medals comparable to most of the significant personal service medals and are unique to units.

The Presidential Unit Citation is the highest distinction that can be given to a unit, and beneath that are several differently titled medals for each military branch. Meritorious unit medals are created for units that excel in support of combat operations, and there are also efficiency awards handed out to units by most of the major branches.

Marksmanship awards

Proving your bravery in the field of battle is certainly something worthy of praise, but preparation and proficiency are also skills worth celebrating. The Coast Guard and Navy both award marksmanship awards for those who demonstrate exceptionally high proficiency with firearms.

Separate marksmanship awards are available for rifles and pistols, and these medals are often a point of pride among the most competitive enlisted service members. The Air Force has a similar marksmanship ribbon, and ribbons and trophies are handed out for completing various types of training.

Just scratching the surface

That’s just brushing against the most overall medals handed out in the armed forces. There are many commendations, and they extend well beyond acts of bravery in combat. That’s because awards are more than just about an act of recognition from the chain of command.

It’s because each of these military medals represents a milestone. And together, they form a story that encompasses the whole of your experience within the armed forces.