What Do Thin Ribbons Represent in the Military?

Written by on February 23, 2021 in Stuff with 0 Comments

Military ribbons are one of the most commonly seen military awards around, but that has as much to do with practicality as any other reason. That said, there are a lot of reasons why military ribbons exist, and the sheer prevalence of them means that they’ve gained their own sense of unique prestige within military circles. Here’s everything you need to know about the thin ribbons worn by military service members.

The History of Military Ribbons

Military ribbons date at least back to the day of Napoleon. His introduction of military campaign medals and ribbons for members of the military was designed to boost morale, and it at least gained enough prominence as an idea that it was integrated into American military practices in the very early days of the Republic. As early as 1776, medals were handed out for honorable service. But they were large and weighty things designed more for ceremonial purposes than for wearing on a uniform. As the military grew, so did the number of different commendations and awards, and that meant that a more practical alternative to increasingly expansive trophy racks was necessary.

Medals designed to be worn on the uniform gained prominence shortly after the Spanish-American War, but it wouldn’t be until World War I that the idea of the ribbon bar was formalized. It was as much a practical concern as anything. The ribbon bar made use of formal color schemes that allowed service members to recognize one another’s accomplishments at a glance, and it made for a more practical uniform than one loaded down with jangling medals. Both the Army and the Navy began implementing their own system of ribbon bars in this period, and it led to a patchwork system of different awards for each of the different military branches. While most major ribbons have counterparts across the different armed forces, they use different designs and have different regulations surrounding them.

A Ribbon for (Almost) Every Medal

For the most part, ribbons are an accompaniment to – rather than a replacement for – more formal medals. Medals are designed to be worn in more formal occasions, and that means that almost all of them come with a ribbon counterpart. Ribbon bars can be worn in more casual situations without looking ostentatious, and that makes them an appropriate choice for wearing with a general service uniform.

In formal occasions, it’s generally appropriate to wear your medals rather than the equivalent ribbons. That said, the rules can vary pretty significantly from branch to branch, and some have very complex rules for different formal engagements. Keeping fresh and undamaged ribbons for major awards should be a priority to service members who are proud of what they’ve done while enlisted.

Ribbons Without Medals

There are even some commendations that are designed just as ribbons, and they don’t even come with a medal counterpart. The two prominent ribbons without medals are the overseas service ribbon and the combat service ribbon. The Presidential Unit Citation, which is designed to be positioned differently than a traditional ribbon bar, could also technically be considered a military ribbon commendation without a medal counterpart.

How ribbons should be worn and displayed in shadow boxes can be very complicated. There’s an order of precedence for every ribbon in a given military branch, and presenting them in the right way is important for military etiquette. Whether you’re a collector or the family member of a veteran, professionals like USAMM can help you find the right thin ribbons and the best way to present them the way they were meant to be presented.

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