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What is the Medal of Honor?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Medal of Honor is the highest military decoration in the United States. Over 3,400 members of the military have been Medal of Honor recipients since this military decoration was established during the Civil War. Recipients are entitled to special benefits from the United States military, including guaranteed admission to the military academy for their children, and by convention, they are usually saluted by all ranks of the military and introduced first in social situations, as a mark of respect.

This military decoration was established in 1862 by an act of Congress. Because the Medal of Honor is given “in the name of Congress,” people sometimes mistakenly refer to it as the Congressional Medal of Honor. There are three different versions of the decoration: one for the Army, one for the Navy, and one for the Air Force. Decorated members of the Marines and the Coast Guard wear the Navy version of the medal. The designs have changed several times since the introduction of the decoration.

Recipients are singled out for their outstanding bravery, which goes above and beyond the call of duty. In addition to being recognized for bravery in direct engagements, people can also be decorated for bravery when working on joint missions with allies. By nature of the award, many of the recipients have been posthumous. In 19 cases, the Medal of Honor was awarded twice.

In the entire history of the decoration, only one woman, Mary Walker, has received the award. She was honored for her courage at the Battle of Bull Run in 1861, and the honor was briefly rescinded in the 20th century before being restored by President Jimmy Carter. Because female servicemembers are barred from serving in many combat positions, they are often deemed ineligible for valor decorations, even when they demonstrate considerable bravery and calm under fire.

As the highest military honor available to Americans, the medal is treated as a major event in the life of a recipient. The award is presented by the President of the United States, and in the case of posthumous recipients, the President presents the award to surviving family members, along with the Medal of Honor Flag. Federal law bans people from selling the award, making duplications, or wearing the medal when they have not been awarded one. People who violate these laws can be subjected to fines and jail time.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By burcinc — On Nov 24, 2014

I can't believe that only one women has ever been awarded the Medal of Honor. There has to be something wrong with that. Women may not be allowed to fight in all combat positions, but I find it difficult to believe that no woman has shown enough bravery to deserve this medal. I'm sure there are many. I also can't believe that this award can be rescinded after it has been given.

By fify — On Nov 23, 2014

@candyquilt-- Posthumous means that someone received the Medal of Honor after their death. Posthumous Medals of Honor are given out sometimes after the death of a soldier. I saw an article in the news just the other day that a soldier who fought in WWI may be given the Medal of Honor now.

Ideally, the bravery of a soldier should be recognized with a Medal of Honor soon after their death but sometimes it takes a very long time. It's not ideal to recognize someone sixty years after their death but it's better late than never.

I think that in the World Wars, there were so many deaths, that the bravery and valor of some soldiers are not brought to attention until much later.

By candyquilt — On Nov 22, 2014

What does it mean for medal of honor recipients to be posthumous? Can anyone explain?

My friend's dad has received the Medal of Honor. He showed it to us one time. It's very cool.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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