Is a Bronze Star really bronze? Is a Silver Star really silver? The precious metals content and meaning behind many of America’s military medals and awards might surprise you.
“Few inventions could be more happily calculated to diffuse the knowledge and preserve the memory of illustrious characters and splendid events than medals,” Col. David Humphreys, who served in the Revolutionary War, wrote in 1787.
Here, we highlight seven of today’s most important military medals and their meanings—medals that every patriotic American should feel empowered to recognize and honor.
Military Medals to Know
The Bronze Star is, appropriately, made of bronze.
Dating back to World War II, the Bronze Star is awarded to members of all branches of the U.S. military, according to the Hall of Valor Project. It’s given either for meritorious service or combat action. Civilians also are eligible to receive the Bronze Star.
Famous recipients include Senator John McCain, TV personality Andy Rooney, and author Ernest Hemingway.
This medal is a five-point star with a laurel wreath in the body of a gold star and a smaller star in the center. Even though this medal is called the Silver Star, it’s actually made primarily of gold.
Originating in 1918, the Silver Star is the third-highest military combat decoration that can be awarded to a member of the U.S. Armed Forces.
Well-known recipients of the Silver Star include Secretary of State Alexander Haig, Secretary of State John Kerry, Gen. George Marshall, and Lt. Col. Oliver North.
Medal of Honor
The metal content of the Medal of Honor varies.
The Army version is made of red brass, other metal, and gold plating, while the Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard versions are made of solid red brass. The Air Force version is made of bronze, other metal, and gold plating.
The Medal of Honor, sometimes called the Congressional Medal of Honor, is the highest military decoration that can be bestowed upon anyone. It’s “awarded to soldiers who risk their own lives and go above and beyond the call of duty while engaged with an enemy of the United States,” according to the Pearl Harbor Visitors Bureau.
The U.S. president hands out this award, which was introduced in December 1861. It initially went to members of the Navy, with the Army adding the distinction in 1862 and the Air Force (and Marines and Coast Guard) in 1965.
Among famous recipients of the Medal of Honor are Capt. Thomas Custer (“Custer’s Last Stand”), President Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt, and Senator Daniel Inouye.
This award’s heart-shaped medallion is gold in color, but it’s actually made of copper and zinc.
President George Washington established the medal as the Badge of Military Merit in 1782 to honor soldiers who displayed gallantry in battle. It can be awarded to commissioned officers, noncommissioned officers, and soldiers.
Decades and decades later, Gen. Douglas MacArthur repositioned the Purple Heart as an award for those wounded or killed in combat while fighting an enemy.
Famous recipients include President John F. Kennedy, Senator John McCain, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and author Kurt Vonnegut.
Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross, and Air Force Cross
The Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross, and Air Force Cross are made of bronze.
The three crosses represent the second-highest military medal for valor, just behind the Medal of Honor. The crosses honor “extraordinary heroism” demonstrated while in combat with an enemy.
Notable recipients of the crosses include Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Gen. John J. Pershing, Maj. Gen. George Patton IV (son of Gen. George Patton), and nurse Lenah Higbee, the first woman to receive the Navy Cross.