The history of military medals dates to the Roman Empire in which honours, often in the form of a metal disk featuring the emperor's likeness, were bestowed on officers to recognise military campaigns. Similar medals were given to lower-class soldiers and centurions. Queen Elizabeth I of Great Britain issued medals to commemorate England's victory over Spain in 1588. Officers generally enjoyed these honours until the 18th century, then rank-and-file soldiers were recognised.
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The Modern Medal
British military leader Oliver Cromwell commemorated the Battle of Dunbar in 1650 by issuing medals to all soldiers who served in the battle. Issuing medals to lower-ranked British soldiers was not revived until the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 when all participating soldiers were awarded medals.
Oldest U.S. Medals
The first medal awarded to U.S. military personnel was the Fidelity Medallion, created in 1780 by the Continental Congress and awarded to soldiers who helped capture British Army Maj. John André, who aided American traitor Benedict Arnold. The Badge of Military Merit followed in 1782 and given only to enlisted men for conspicuous service.
Medal of Honor
The concept behind the Badge of Military Merit was revived when Iowa Sen. James Grimes proposed a valour medal at the beginning of the Civil War. The award, to become the Medal of Honor, was met with scepticism by Commanding Army Gen. Winfield Scott, but was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln in December 1861.
Canada and England
The Canadian military conceived its first medal in 1866 as the Canada General Service Medal awarded to Canadian and British personnel who participated in the 1866 and 1870 Fenian Raids and the Red River expedition. The United Kingdom's Military Medal was awarded to all non-commissioned soldiers since 1916. The Military Medal was discontinued in 1993.
20th Century Medals
As wars became more complex and involved more casualties, the U.S. military began rethinking how to award individual medals of valour. The Purple Heart was created during World War I and awarded to soldiers wounded or killed while in military service beginning April 5, 1917. Awarding Purple Hearts ended with the war, but was revived in 1927. The military also created the Navy Cross, the Silver Star and the Bronze Star for meritorious service.
While it's not uncommon for governments during wartime to award medals retroactively to the beginning of hostilities, some even go back further. The Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest military decoration next to the Medal of Honor, was created during World War I for valour. But it also recognised some individuals in the 1898 Spanish-American War, the Mexican Border campaign of 1916 and the Boxer Rebellion of 1898 to 1901.
Four U.S. Army nurses were awarded the Silver Star, including one posthumously, in 1944 for bravery in the evacuation of a field hospital at Anzio, Italy. But not until Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester was awarded the medal in 2005 in Iraq did another woman receive the honour. Army medic Monica Brown was awarded the Silver Star in 2008 for gallantry in Afghanistan.
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