Soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, both officers and enlisted personnel, proudly wear a set of ribbons above the left pocket of their service uniforms. These ribbons and the devices pinned to them recognise gallantry, merit, wounds, good conduct, multiple awards of a signal medal, multiple tours of duty, and other worthy milestones or conduct. Specific rules govern how and when these medals may be worn.
Full medals are only worn on Class A ceremonial uniforms, miniature versions with formal evening-dress, ribbons on service uniforms. Service personnel cannot wear their medals out of uniform. Veterans and retirees can.
Order of Placement
A snapshot of one's military career, in effect, medals and ribbons are pinned on a uniform from left to right, from highest to lowest importance. Gallantry and merit awards come before campaign medals. Ribbons number three to four per row. Each medal's placement follows a very strict order of precedence set out in service regulations. Medals for conspicuous gallantry come first, those rewarding exemplary merit second, lesser gallantry and merit awards third, good conduct medals fourth, campaign medals fifth, select foreign medals sixth.
Look at any medal and you will see a gold or bronze ornament at the bottom of a rectangular strip of cloth. It could be a cross, a star, an eagle encircled in laurel, a hexagon, a circle, even a heart. The ribbons have vertical stripes of varying widths and collars set against a background that is mostly blue, red or white. A small oak leaf cluster or star pinned to its ribbon indicate a second award of the particular medal.
V for Valor
A V-shaped device on its ribbon indicates the medal winner faced hostile fire while performing meritorious service. "Vs" are authorised for wear with such well known medals as the Distinguish Flying Cross, the Bronze Star and Air Medal. The Legion of Merit, though, is the highest award to which a V can be affixed. Others include the Joint Service Commendation Medal; commendation medals issued by the Army, Navy and Air Force; the Joint Service Achievement Medal; and the individual services' achievement medals.
Campaign medals go as far back as the Civil War. Readily recognisable symbols of the campaign's theatre of operation are engraved on the obverse and reverse sides of the bronze circular pendant. The front of the Afghanistan Campaign Medal, for example, has mountains in its foreground and a map of the entire country in the background. The back shows the head of a vigilant eagle set against a rising sun. The eagle symbolises American resolve to defend freedom, the rising sun Afghanistan's future.