The Unique History Behind Army Service Ribbons

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Written By Charlotte Miller

Everyone has seen them, but not many people know the unique history behind army service ribbons. Army service ribbons, also known as military thin ribbons, refer to the colorful ribbon bars worn on the uniforms of US armed forces personnel. They are given as a way to represent the various highlights and achievements of a given service member’s career. But how did this tradition start? What do the different colors represent and why are they placed in such a specific order? There is actually a lot more to the history and use of army service ribbons than might initially meet the eye.

What Exactly Do They Represent?

Military ribbons run the gamut in what they can represent. Essentially they are a way to display the awards and accolades received during a service member’s training, service, combat action, etc. There are awards for personal achievements, such as graduation ribbons, marksmanship, and good conduct. There are also ribbons specifically for events or actions that take place in times of crisis, like the extraordinary heroism, distinguished service, and Medal of Honor awards. Some are even more unique, including prisoner of war and overseas medals. 

Most ribbon bars are given in conjunction with a medal, which is hung with a ribbon of the same design as they represent the same achievement. The colors and patterns of these ribbons are selected and closely regulated by each branch of the armed forces. The sizes of the bands and the shades of the colors used in each ribbon are specified by the US government. There are also some awards that are given solely in the form of a thin ribbon (with no additional medal).

When Did We Start Using Them? 

Unsurprisingly, US military awards have been around since the founding of the United States of America. In fact, many of the founding fathers received the nation’s first medals, which at the time were about the size of a dinner plate and not meant to be worn. Some of these medals are still being minted for commemorative purposes and can be seen in various museums and military offices around the country. As for the military medals we think of today, they can be traced back to the US Civil War. The first formal medals were given out unofficially by commanders during the Civil War and originally had very few, if any, regulations. 

What Changes Have They Undergone? 

Of course, as the times change, so do the needs of our armed forces personnel. Over time the awards that were created and bestowed became cumbersome, especially for the more aggressive style of warfare that came after the Civil War. During World War I, the thin ribbons were created as a way to symbolize an officer’s ranking and achievements without getting in the way as a collection of hanging medals often did. These were still able to be worn on the front of one’s uniform, but they were significantly more practical for active service members. From then on, the full medal awards were designated to be worn only during formal dress occasions or off-duty presentations and ceremonies. 

Another change that occurred over the course of many years was the number of regulations and standardizations. Due to the initial “unofficial” awardings, each branch began to standardize and oversee the designing, awarding, and displaying of their military awards differently. It is for this reason that even today each branch has its own set of formal rules and codes. However, there are some codes that supersede the individual branch conventions, such as the Order of Precedence, which dictates the ranking of the awards for display purposes.   

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How Should They Be Displayed? 

Like many aspects of the military, the display of military ribbons is closely regulated for uniformity and precision. These regulations apply to awards that are being worn (whether for active duty or ceremony) and those on display in shadow boxes or other display cases. The Order of Precedence must be followed as well as several other key features, such as number of ribbons in a row, number of devices on top of a given ribbon, etc. All of these regulations (and many more) are laid out by each branch in their individual handbooks. It is also of note that occasionally there are changes made to the ribbon codes, for example discontinued use or the addition and subsequent ranking of new awards.  

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There’s a surprising amount of history and meaning behind these colorful little bars. Someone well-versed in the various ribbons and their significance can tell a lot about an officer’s history, skills, and experience just by glancing at their uniform. So the next time you see a military ribbon, pay attention to the details because there’s a lot to learn.