By Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Daniel Garas
Defense Logistics Agency Public Affairs
The practice of using military decorations to honor individuals or fighting organizations dates back to antiquity.
Early awards were usually used to recognize leaders in the nobility and military class of society.
According to the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum, the Egyptians had the Order of the Golden Fly, a golden necklace that they decorated with flies to signify themselves as a pestilence to the enemy. Later, Roman soldiers decorated the leather lappets that hung from their belts by attaching tokens and discs to signify the campaigns in which they fought. Finally, necklaces and bracelets were given during the early Middle Ages, evolving into richly jeweled necklaces, often with a pendant (commonly a medal) attached.
Henry Dorling wrote in “Ribbons and Medals: The World’s Military and Civil Awards” that Napoleon was among the first to recognize the effect that ribbons had on the morale of common troops. Bonaparte ordered a large number of ribbons and medals for issue to the soldiers serving under his command. These early devices were not designed to be worn on a uniform during everyday service and were largely for presentation and formal dress.
Ray Raymond wrote in “The Badge of Military Merit” that for the United States, the first formal medals for military service would be recognized during the American Civil War. The awards were usually issued on an unofficial basis by local commanders and had no prescription for their display. According to “Naval Ceremonies, Customs, and Traditions” Sixth Edition, Connell & Mack, Soldiers usually chose to wear them over their left breast, keeping with a custom that was traced from the practice of Crusaders wearing badges of honor on their order near the heart. The left side was also the shield side and protected both their heart and the decoration. Swords, another symbol of status, also were worn on the left side in order to be quickly drawn by the right hand.
The tradition was incorporated into official uniform regulations sometime after the Spanish American War, when several medals were authorized to commemorate the conflict and commanders needed to provide guidance for their exhibition in a uniform manner.
Navy uniform regulations show that the World War I practice of using clasps to denote campaigns on medals was discarded in favor of using three-sixteenth inch bronze stars on ribbons. After the war, the practice of using small devices on the ribbon to symbolize multiple awards and valor in combat became more common as ribbons began to replace medals as the method of displaying awards during working days.
As a result, the custom of wearing the ribbons of the medals on a ribbon bar began during this period. The Army and Navy used different precedence for wearing these ribbons, which resulted in a separate criteria for the creation and wearing of awards by each service that remains to this day.
Some awards were created to be worn purely as ribbons. When worn on dress uniforms in combination with medals, they are worn on the right breast.
Some high level officers contain such a variety of awards that when wearing all the colorful ribbons in conjunction with the extravagant golden trim on their dress uniforms. According to Air Force Uniform regulations, this is known as wearing their “scrambled eggs and fruit salad.”
Today, the personal decorations that a Sailor wears on their uniform marks not only individual accomplishment, but serve as a record of an individual’s service. To the trained eye, a Sailor’s ribbon stack can reveal their service to shipmates before they even formally meet. Even for members no longer serving it is not uncommon to see participants of military organizations proudly display their ribbons and medals on their clothing to advertise their performance during their time in the service.