Who Earns the Armed Forces Service Medal?

February 7, 2023Noelle Wiehe
Armed Forces Service Medal

Each color on the Armed Forces Service Medal symbolizes something different: green for life and growth; medium blue for the Department of Defense; and gold to denote honor. US Air Force graphic by Staff Sgt. Alexx Pons.

When you think about American military medals, names may come to mind of service members who risked life and limb or saved a buddy. But the Department of Defense has a specific award for exceptional service outside of combat — the Armed Forces Service Medal.

The award is essentially the noncombat version of the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal. It is reserved for troops who gave their time and efforts to help people or entire nations without the imminent threat of hostile enemy action. Actions that may qualify someone for the award can be anything from the enforcement of a no-fly zone to assisting with recovery efforts after a natural disaster to swabbing nostrils in order to help prevent the spread of a deadly virus. 

As issued by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the citation for the Armed Forces Service Medal states that for a service member to be eligible for the medal they must: “(1) Participate, or have participated, as members of U.S. military units, in a U.S. military operation that is deemed to be a significant activity; and (2) Encounter no foreign armed opposition or imminent threat of hostile action.”

The Armed Forces Service Medal was conceived at a time when, according to the White House Historical Association, “the U.S. enjoyed more peace and economic well being than at any time in its history.”

Related: A Brief History of the National Defense Service Medal

Armed Forces Service Medal

Soldiers assigned to E Company, 3rd Aviation Regiment, 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, were awarded the Armed Forces Service Medal Oct. 1 2021, at Hunter Army Airfield, Georgia, for their deployment to Fort Huachuca, Arizona, in support of the US Customs and Border Protection security efforts, June-September 2021. US Army photo by Sgt. Savannah Roy.

On Jan. 11, 1996, Clinton signed Executive Order 12985, formally establishing the AFSM. The order also retroactively awarded the medal to all service members and veterans who had satisfied the criteria on or after June 1, 1992. Among the award’s first recipients were troops who had taken part in the military support operation Maritime Monitor, a NATO mission conducted in 1992 that entailed providing overwatch for cargo ships crossing the Adriatic Sea en route to the former Yugoslavia. 

The Prereqs

Anyone who has donned a US military uniform and survived the initial entry training of their respective branch is considered a member of the American armed forces. According to the Department of Defense, members of the Army, Marines Corps, Navy, Air Force, Space Force, Coast Guard, and Air and Army National Guard can all qualify to receive the AFSM. 

The AFSM can only be earned by service members assigned to an operation that the Pentagon has designated humanitarian in nature. The service member must also participate in the mission for a period of at least 30 days. The secretaries of each individual military branch determine which service members within the ranks are eligible for the award. 

Related: How a Former Danish Commando Used His ‘Ghost’ Camaro To Provide Humanitarian Aid to War-Torn Bosnia

Hurricane Katrina relief eligibility for Armed Forces Service Medal

New Jersey Air National Guard Master Sgts. Jeff Redrup, left, with the 108th Air Refueling Wing, and Pedro Rodriguez with the 177th Fighter Wing, prepare water for airlift by the 108th to Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base New Orleans at Belle Chasse, Louisiana, in support of Operation Vigilant Relief after Hurricane Katrina, Sept. 7, 2005. US Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Mark C. Olsen.

Service members who participated in operations that were humanitarian in nature but for a period of less than 30 days are not eligible for the AFSM. However, those individuals can qualify for the Humanitarian Service Award, which recognizes actions “that had a direct and immediate on-site effect on humanitarian assistance and relief efforts for at least one day.” 

Chest Candy

The Armed Forces Service Medal was designed by Nadine Russell. According to the literature included with the AFSM, Russell is “one of America’s leading medalists.” She also designed the Southwest Asia Service Medal and the Military Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal, among others.

The physical AFSM is a bronze disk measuring 1 3/8 inches in diameter. Its face is embossed with the image of a torch, adapted from the Statue of Liberty, which represents the principles of democracy, leadership, and guidance.

On the flip side is an image of an eagle, the same one displayed on the official seal of the Department of Defense. A laurel wreath lines the lower half and an inscription along the top reads “In Pursuit of Democracy.”

Related: Special Forces Teammates Remember Medal of Honor Recipient Ron Shurer for His Strength, Humor, and Resolve

Armed Forces Service Medal

Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Energy, Installations and Environment) Charles Williams Jr. awards Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Adrianmikael Reyes the Armed Forces Service Medal during a tour of Naval Support Activity Bahrain on Dec. 2, 2020. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Justin Yarborough. 

The ribbon from which the medal is suspended is colored in shades of gold, green, and blue. The service ribbon, which recipients wear on their dress uniform and adds to their “chest candy,” displays the same color pattern. Each color symbolizes something different: green for life and growth; medium blue for the Department of Defense; and gold to denote honor.

Who Qualifies?

To be eligible for the AFSM, a service member must have participated in at least one of more than a dozen qualifying operations conducted between 1992 and today. Among the most recent of those is Operation Capitol Response on Jan. 6, 2021. And some service members who were involved in Operations Allies Refuge and Allies Welcome — supporting Afghans evacuated from Kabul during the US withdrawal in 2021 — are also eligible for the medal, according to the DOD.

Other qualifying missions include deterring the “resumption of hostilities and [stabilizing] the peace” in Bosnia-Herzegovina during the late 1990s, nation-building operations in Haiti, the recovery response to Hurricane Katrina, and the military’s efforts to help secure the American southwest border in the mid-2000s. 

COVID-19 response

Kuhina Talimalie, 735th Air Mobility Squadron passenger service and baggage agent, tests a no-touch thermometer on a US Air Force airman at the Air Mobility Command Passenger Terminal at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, March 25, 2020. US Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Anthony Nelson Jr.

The AFSM criteria further stipulate that to earn the medal an individual service member must have participated in a “significant activity” for at least 30 consecutive days. The requirements are a little different for military flight crews. According to the DOD, troops serving on board aircraft “must have participated as a regularly assigned crew member on an aircraft flying into, out of, within, or over the area of eligibility in direct support of the designated military operation for 30 consecutive days or 60 non-consecutive days.”

On June 30, 2020, the Pentagon announced that military personnel participating in the response efforts to the COVID-19 pandemic could qualify for the AFSM. The window of eligibility for the award opened on Jan. 31, 2020, and the end date has not yet been determined.

Service members who have earned more than one AFSM add a bronze star to the ribbon denoting the second and subsequent awards of the medal. Individuals cannot earn multiple AFSMs for their service in a single operation. 

Read Next: The US Military Needs Them in Japan, but the Pentagon Just Dropped Their Health Care

Noelle Wiehe
Noelle Wiehe

Noelle is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die through a fellowship from Military Veterans in Journalism. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and interned with the US Army Cadet Command. Noelle also worked as a civilian journalist covering several units, including the 75th Ranger Regiment on Fort Benning, before she joined the military as a public affairs specialist.

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