Medals denote achievements and recognize service and sacrifice.

If you've run across your grandfather's military medals in a box of family mementos or wondered about all those ribbons the military chiefs of staff wear, you've probably wondered about the stories behind those awards. Reading those ribbons can tell you where our military personnel have served and what they have accomplished in their careers.

Reading Military Ribbons

Ask a soldier

Ask a soldier. If you know someone who serves in our military forces, he will be able to help you identify many of those ribbons that are worn on uniforms. Start by asking about the ones she has earned.

Use colored pencils

Use colored pencils to sketch the ribbons you cannot identify, or use a digital camera to take pictures of the ribbons. Many ribbons will be similar in color, but slight differences exist in the size of the colored bars and stripes. Don't trust your memory to identify the ribbons.

Compare your sketches or digital images

Compare your sketches or digital images to the images you can find on the Grunt website or in a book such as the Department of Defense's "21st Century U.S. Military: Military Awards--Medals, Ribbons, and Decorations." Both resources have complete lists of ribbons awarded in all branches of the military.

Learn to recognize some

Learn to recognize some of the most common awards. The Medal of Honor ribbon is the same for all branches of service; it is royal blue with five small white stars. The Silver Star is also the same for each branch of service; two wide white stripes and one red stripe are centered on a blue background and a small white stripe appears at each edge of the ribbon. The Purple Heart is a purple ribbon with a small white strip on each end.

Some ribbons indicate recent military campaigns

Some ribbons indicate recent military campaigns. For example, a soldier earns a United Nations service ribbon if he works with U.N. peacekeeping forces. This ribbon is a series of alternating light blue and white stripes. If a soldier served in Kosovo, the ribbon he earned will have a large black stripe on the left and large red stripe on the right; in its center is a small red, white and black stripe. Soldiers who have served in Iraq earn a ribbon with a large central tan stripe and smaller red, white and black stripes on either side.

royal canadian air force uniform image by Gina Smith from

Investigate the appurtenances

Investigate the appurtenances that are sometimes worn on the ribbons. Oak leaf clusters, Arabic numberals and brass or silver letters all have special significance. A soldier earns an oak leaf cluster when she earns the same award more than once. Some second and successive awards earn an Arabic number instead. If the letter "V" is displayed, it means the soldier participated in acts of heroism involving conflict with an armed enemy. The letter "M" indicates that the soldier was part of a reserve force that was mobilized.

Things Needed

  • ['Sketch pad and colored pencils', 'Digital camera', '"21st Century U.S. Military: Military Awards--Medals, Ribbons, and Decorations" by the U.S. Department of Defense']


  • The armed forces award ribbons and medals for the accomplishments their soldiers make. The ribbons are usually worn on the daily uniforms, while medals are only worn for very formal occasions, which might occur once or twice a year.