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Can Civilians Get Military Awards?

Soldiers receive military awards to recognize their achievements. They may receive medals, badges, or service ribbons. There is a long list of military awards and decorations, but most of them are only given to members of the armed forces. 

TLDR – Civilians may receive public service awards from the Army or Air Force. Most departments of the US government also award non-military honors to civilians. Several civilians have received military awards, such as the Purple Heart, but this is extremely rare.

What Military Awards Can Civilians Get?

On rare occasions, civilians have received military awards or recognition from the US government for their valor. Military awards are mostly reserved for members of the military. However, civilians may receive awards for civilian service from the Department of Defense (DoD).

The Armed Forces are part of the DoD. The Army, Air Force, and Navy each have awards for distinguished civilian service. The DoD also issues its own distinguished civilian service award, which is the highest civilian award given by a branch of the military. 

Global War on Terrorism Civilian Service Medal DIA Civilian Combat Support Medal NATO Medal
Cornellrockey | wikimedia From left-to-right: Global War on Terrorism Civilian Service Medal DIA Civilian Combat Support Medal NATO Medal

The first distinguished civilian service medal was awarded to Earl H. Pritchard for his service as an intelligence analyst during the second world war. 

The civilian service awards are given to personnel of the DoD, which includes civilians who work for the Army or other armed forces. US citizens who are not employed by the DoD may receive public service awards.

Public service awards include the distinguished public service medal, the superior public service medal, and five other awards for varying levels of service.

Can Civilians Get the Medal of Honor?

Eight civilians have received the medal of honor, which is typically only given to members of the US military. Since 1861, 3,513 individuals have received the medal of honor. 

The eight civilians to receive the medal of honor were mostly scouts during the civil war. They were employed by the Army as civilians and received the award for various wartime accomplishments.

In 1917, the US Congress tightened the requirements for awarding the medal of honor. All eight civilian recipients had their honors removed. However, they were restored in 1977 and 1989.

No civilians since have received the Medal of Honor. The Medal of Honor is used to recognize valor in combat. As all major military conflicts since the Civil War have occurred on foreign soil, US civilians are rarely in combat situations. 

What Are the Highest Civilian Awards?

The highest awards that a civilian can receive are the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.

Since the American Revolution, the US Congress has awarded gold medals to recognize distinguished achievements. The first gold medal was awarded to George Washington. Other early recipients were also veterans of the American Revolution. Over the years, Congress expanded the scope of the award to recognize contributions from civilians.

Congressional Gold Medal
Department of Treasury Congressional Gold Medal

Civilians have received the Congressional Gold Medal for contributions to music, entertainment, aeronautics, science, and medicine. Athletes and humanitarians have also received the gold medal. A total of 163 individuals and groups have received the medal.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is awarded to civilians or military personnel who have contributed to the security or national interests of the United States. President John F. Kennedy established the award. The president may select the recipient or choose one based on recommendations.

Notable recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom include Muhammad Ali, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Nancy Reagan, Mother Teresa, and Angela Merkel.

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Presidential Medal of Freedom
Stevietheman Presidential Medal of Freedom

Can Civilians Wear Military Medals They Didn’t Earn?

The Stolen Valor Act makes it a crime to falsely claim to be a veteran and wear medals or decorations that you did not earn for personal gain. However, there are no laws prohibiting civilians from wearing medals as a personal statement or fashion choice. 

Civilians also occasionally wear military decorations earned by deceased family members. While it is not illegal for civilians to wear military medals they did not earn, it is considered disrespectful.

Military medals are official decorations that should only be worn according to the regulations of the military branch that awarded them.

The United States Army, Marines, Air Force, Navy, and Coast Guard do not permit current or former service members to wear their medals outside official ceremonies or duties. Regulations allow them to wear medals during patriotic events, such as parades on Memorial Day or Veterans Day.

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