A Brief History of the National Defense Service Medal

February 2, 2023Jenna Biter,Carl Prine
National Defense Service Medal

Established on April 22, 1953, the National Defense Service Medal and accompanying ribbon have been awarded for honorable military service during four major US conflicts. US Air Force image.

In December 2022, the Pentagon retired the National Defense Service Medal. The NDSM had been awarded to every member of the United States armed forces for more than two decades, since the onset of the Global War on Terror, and its deactivation marked the end of an era

The US mission to defeat ISIS is still underway in Syria. But on the heels of 2021 — with America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and the official end of its combat operations in Iraq — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin decided that it was time to close the window of eligibility for the NDSM.

“Termination is based on the United States no longer conducting large-scale combat operations in designated geographic locations as a result of the terrorist attacks that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001,” Pentagon spokesperson Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman said in an email to Coffee or Die. “However, the Department of Defense still continues worldwide counterterrorism operations.”

This was the fourth time the NDSM had been inactivated since it was first awarded in the 1950s. More than likely, it won’t be the last. 

Related: Finding Freedom: Syria in the Wake of ISIS

Square One

President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the National Defense Service Medal at the tail end of the Korean War to recognize troops who served during the conflict. Unlike a campaign medal, the NDSM was intended to honor all wartime service, regardless of whether or not the military member served in theater.

Coast Guard veteran

Capt. Rebecca Ore, commanding officer of Sector Los Angeles-Long Beach, presents Rikio Izumi, a Coast Guard veteran, with the National Defense Service Medal for his service during the Korean War, San Pedro, California, June 10, 2022. US Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Aidan Cooney.

Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10448 on April 22, 1953. In doing so, he retroactively awarded the NDSM to every soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, and Coast Guardsman who had served on active duty since the start of the Korean War. The first window of eligibility for the NDSM was open for a little more than four years, from 1950 to 1954.

The medal was inactivated on July 27, 1954, exactly one year after the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement. It was reactivated in 1961, this time to be awarded for active-duty service during the Vietnam War.

Related: The Forgotten Ones: 5 Fascinating Stories From the Korean War

A ‘Blanket Award’

Service members sometimes dismiss the NDSM as a so-called blanket award — a medal given to everyone just for showing up. Yet for the past two decades, pinning the NDSM on the chest of a new recruit was a threshold moment, as it marked their graduation from entry-level training into the operational armed forces.

The medal is also significant in that it shows that the recipients served during a time of war. In the case of post-9/11 veterans, it signifies their participation in the global campaign against Islamist terrorism that entailed simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Vietnam veterans

Michael Carr, president of the Jon Paranese Chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America, salutes, and Paul Buchanan, chairman of the Onslow County Board of Commissioners, places his hand over his heart during taps at Lejeune Memorial Gardens during Vietnam Recognition Day, April 27, 2013. US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Jackeline Perez Rivera.

But of course, all wars eventually come to an end. The window of eligibility for the NDSM closed four years after American military operations got underway in Korea. It reopened for 13 years during the war in Vietnam, then again for a period of five years following the start of the first Gulf War. The Global War on Terror had the largest eligibility window — 21 years — during which all troops who served honorably received the NDSM.

Related: How the Huey Helicopter Became the Workhorse of the Vietnam War

The ‘Pizza Stain’

The NDSM is one of the Department of Defense’s most widely issued awards. At least 4 million service members have received the medal, not including those who were awarded it retroactively.

Originally, aside from active-duty service members, only full-time reservists and National Guard members were eligible for the NDSM. The criterion was eventually changed so that all actively drilling reservists and guardsmen in good standing could receive the medal.

The physical award (ribbon and medal) was designed in 1953 by the Army’s Heraldic Program Office. The ribbon features a wide gold stripe that runs down its middle and is meant to represent high ideals. Red, white, and blue stripes symbolizing the American flag flank the gold band. The ribbon’s appearance earned it an unflattering nickname — the “pizza stain.”

Awards are displayed on the dress uniform belonging to Army Spc. Matthew Bailey, a soldier assigned to 55th Signal Company at Fort Meade, Maryland, April 29, 2014. The National Defense Service Medal is farthest left in the center row. US Army photo by Spc. Michael Sharp.

As for the medal, the face side is embossed with a bald eagle perched upon a sword and a palm branch. The words “National Defense” arc across the top. On the back is the shield from the US coat of arms. Together, the eagle and shield represent American defense.

Military members who served in more than one of the major conflicts connected to the award wear a bronze star device on the ribbon for each additional NDSM earned.

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Jenna Biter
Jenna Biter

Jenna Biter is a staff writer at Coffee or Die Magazine. She has a master’s degree in national security and is a Russian language student. When she’s not writing, Jenna can be found reading classics, running, or learning new things, like the constellations in the night sky. Her husband is on active duty in the US military. Know a good story about national security or the military? Email Jenna.

Carl Prine
Carl Prine

Carl Prine is a senior editor at Coffee or Die Magazine. He previously worked at Navy Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He served in the Marine Corps and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. His awards include the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting on the military, a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors, and the Combat Infantryman Badge.

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