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What are the Different Types of Military Ribbons?

By S. Mithra
Updated: May 17, 2024

Military ribbons are awarded to recognize successful completion of a standard service, such as training, deployment, or special programs. A service ribbon is different from a military badge or medal given for a single act of bravery or performance. Military ribbons are narrow bars of metal covered in a swath of fabric. The color and width of the ribbon's stripes indicate what the metal means and from which military division it was received.

Military ribbons are pinned to the breast of the uniform and derived from the flags knights used to carry into battle, whose bright colors showed the purpose of each battalion. Originally, ribbons were worn in place of heavy medals strung around the neck. Now, the miniaturized decorations are usually "ribbon only," worn alone or with accompanying medals. Each military division, the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard, awards its own set of ribbons, yet they have common purposes. Less common are unit ribbons awarded to an entire battalion.

Some types of military ribbons distinguish those who have successfully completed a deployment. This period can be a few months in unusual circumstances or a few years of standard deployment. For example, the Army, Navy, and Marines award an Overseas Service Ribbon to those who have completed a Tour of Duty of 2-3 years outside the continental United States. General deployment ribbons also include the Air Force's Expeditionary Service Ribbon or Arctic Service Ribbon for deployment associated with exceptional challenges.

Another category of military ribbons is for those who perform well in evaluations. These include ribbons for marksmanship, as some divisions recognize high scores on a weapons test with a rifle or pistol. Those who complete training with above-average performance, or graduate with satisfactory marks from a program will receive a decoration, such as the Marine Corps Drill Instruction Ribbon. Even instructors working with recruitment or training are eligible to receive a Recruiting Service Ribbon from the Marines, Navy, and Air Force for a three year Tour of Duty.

Military ribbons differentiate between combat and non-combat services. The Navy and Marines award a Combat Action Ribbon to those who served in a declared combat zone for a certain length of time. Yet special kinds of non-combat service are also recognized, such as by Special Operations officers or members of the Coast Guard who enforce the law in difficult circumstances such as terrorism attacks.

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Discussion Comments
By anon244032 — On Jan 30, 2012

The Navy and Marine Corps Combat Action Ribbon is not for simply serving in a combat zone for a period of time. You have to be actively engaging the enemy (i.e., returning fire) in order to earn one.

By Valencia — On May 10, 2011

I respect the symbolism of US military ribbons. What I don't understand is why leaders of some countries buy and wear them, when it is obviously something they haven't earned.

By Windchime — On May 07, 2011

@anon107585 - The word you are looking for is phaleristics, which covers those interested in or actually collecting military medals and ribbons. My grandfather was into this hobby and woebetide anyone who tried to touch any of his treasures!

By anon107585 — On Aug 31, 2010

You should include the term that defines the study of military ribbons. It begins with a "p" but I can't recall it. For example, "numismatics" is the study of coins and currency in general. Military ribbons have a similar term but no one seems to recall it.

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