Vietnam Era Ribbons, Awards, and Heroes

March 30, 2023
Vietnam Veterans of America

Vietnam Era ribbons represent a visual history of the accomplishments and experiences of those who served during the Vietnam War from 1955 to 1975. With over 2 million Americans serving during the conflict, numerous military decorations were established and awarded to recognize patriotic service and bravery.

The Most Well-Known Vietnam Era Ribbons and Awards

According to the VA Office of Research and Development, approximately 2.7 U.S. service members served in the Vietnam Theater of Operations during the Vietnam War, of which over 58,000 lost their lives.

Famous individual battles, operations, and conflicts during the war include the Battle of La Drang Valley in 1965, the Battle of Khe Sanh in 1968, the Tet Offensive of 1968, the Battle of Hamburger Hill in 1969, and the 1975 Spring Offensive, which resulted in the fall of Saigon.

U.S. military personnel in all branches earned numerous Vietnam Era ribbons, awards, and decorations during these battles. Some of the most well-known awards earned by Vietnam War veterans include:

Vietnam Service Medal

The Vietnam Service Medal (VSM) was established by executive order on July 8, 1965, and signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

The Department of Defense created the award to recognize the efforts of every U.S. service member who participated in the Vietnam War across all branches of the Armed Forces. It is one of the most commonly awarded Vietnam Era ribbons.

The service ribbon is recognizable by its yellow band with three central red stripes and two outer green stripes. The medal has a rounded appearance with a bronze color. The front side of the medal features an oriental dragon behind bamboo trees and the words “Republic of Vietnam Service.” The reverse depicts a lit torch over a crossbow over the words “United States of America.”

Generally, any service member who participated in conflicts involving the United States during the Vietnam War can receive the Vietnam Service Medal. Depending on the servicemember’s branch and service actions, the medal may be augmented with one of three devices on the ribbon:

  • Service star: Also known as a campaign star, a single bronze service star is awarded for participating in one of 29 designated Vietnam War campaigns. Servicemembers that have participated in enough campaigns to receive five bronze stars or more are authorized to wear a silver service star instead.
  • Arrowhead: Awarded to U.S. Army or Air Force personnel assigned to a unit that conducted combat parachute jumps, helicopter assault landings, combat glider landings, or amphibious assault landings.
  • FMF Combat Operation Insignia: Awarded to U.S. Navy personnel assigned to a U.S. Marine Corps unit during a USMC combat operation.

Vietnam Campaign Medal

The Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal, often shortened to Vietnam Campaign Medal (VCM), is a foreign Vietnam Era ribbon initially conceived by the South Vietnamese government for French troops participating in the First Indochina War. From 1966 onwards, South Vietnam awarded it to personnel of the U.S. military and allied nations for military support of the country during the Vietnam War.

The VCM features a green ribbon with white bands, a silver device with a “1960-” inscription, and a golden star-shaped medal with white enamel. In the medal’s center is a round emblem representing the borders of Vietnam overlaid by a red flame. The medal’s reverse is flat and features the words “Viet-Nam” and “Chien-Dich Boi-Tinh,” the medal’s name in Vietnamese.

Although it is a foreign award, members of the U.S. Armed Forces that have received the medal are authorized to accept and wear the VCM alongside other U.S. and approved foreign awards.

Purple Heart

The Purple Heart (PH) is the oldest U.S. military decoration still awarded today and one of the most well-known.

The Department of Defense awards the Purple Heart to U.S. military personnel that were wounded in action (WIA) or killed in action (KIA) by an enemy of the United States or opposing armed forces. During the Vietnam War, it was awarded to any service member wounded or killed in theater by the North Vietnamese Army, Viet Cong forces, and their allies.

Although it isn’t specifically a Vietnam Era ribbon due to its introduction in 1932, the Army Historical Foundation estimated that the Department of Defense awarded over 350,000 Purple Hearts to U.S. service members in the Vietnam War.

Bronze Star

The Bronze Star Medal (BSM) was instituted by the executive order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944 and is retroactive to December 7, 1941.

Initially created to recognize the heroic and meritorious actions of U.S. service members during World War II, the Department of Defense continues awarding the Bronze Star today to U.S. military personnel and civilians serving with the Armed Forces.

A U.S. service member or civilian member of the Armed Forces may be eligible for the Bronze Star for acts of heroism, outstanding achievements, and meritorious service not involving aerial flight in a combat theater.

Meritorious Service Medal

The Meritorious Service Medal (MSM) is an award created by the Department of Defense to recognize the outstanding achievements of U.S. Armed Forces personnel before January 16, 1969, whether in combat or non-combat service. The cutoff date means that U.S. personnel who served during the first 14 years of the Vietnam War were eligible to receive it.

The Meritorious Service Medal features a crimson ribbon with two white stripes attached to a bronze medal. The medal depicts an eagle with wings spread open over laurel leaves, a star, and rays.

The U.S. Army and Air Force use different eligibility criteria than the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard to award the MSM to armed forces personnel.

Soldiers and Airmen of any rank can receive the medal for meritorious performance. In contrast, only Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard officers can receive the medal. These branches of the Armed Forces generally only award the MSM to ranks O-5 and higher, with few exceptions.

Distinguished Flying Cross

The Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) is a military award created to recognize the achievements and heroism of any U.S. Armed Forces member while in aerial flight. The Distinguished Flying Cross can be awarded to both combat and non-combat personnel.

President Calvin Coolidge introduced this medal in 1927 to award ten U.S. Army Air Corps members, two of whom had died during the 1926-1927 Army Pan American Flight. DFCs have been awarded to members of various branches of the Armed Forces since then, including the Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and the now-defunct Army Air Force, most notably during World War II and Vietnam.

The DFC features a bronze cross-shaped medal featuring a four-bladed airplane propeller. The medal’s ribbon is blue, featuring four white stripes and a single central red stripe.

According to the Virtual Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 470 individuals across all branches received the Distinguished Flying Cross posthumously.

Silver Star

The Silver Star Medal (SSM) is one of the highest military decorations awarded to members of the U.S. Armed Forces. It ranks as the third-highest decoration, below the Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross, Air Force Cross, and Coast Guard Cross. All branches of the U.S. Armed Forces can award the Silver Star.

The official eligibility criteria for the Silver Star is gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States, making it an award primarily reserved for combat personnel. Although these criteria are similar to those for the Bronze Star, a U.S. service member must perform acts of gallantry of a higher degree to qualify for a Silver Star.

Despite the name, the Silver Star comprises a golden star-shaped medal attached to a blue, white, and red ribbon.

According to Home of Heroes, a military history reference database, U.S. personnel from all five branches of the Armed Forces have received Silver Stars during the Vietnam War: 12 Coast Guardsmen, 136 Navy sailors, 143 Air Force airmen, 2,418 Marines, and 21,630 Army soldiers, for a total of 24,339 medals awarded.

The Service Crosses

Five different medals, one for each of the U.S. Armed Forces branches, simultaneously occupy the position of the second-highest military award, between the Bronze Star and the Medal of Honor:

  • Distinguished Service Cross (DSC), awarded by the Army, including the Air Force until 1960
  • Navy Cross, awarded by the Navy, including the Marine Corps
  • Air Force Cross (AFC), awarded by the Air Force since its creation in 1960, and today, the Space Force
  • Coast Guard Cross (CGC), awarded by the Coast Guard

Although each features a different design and are awarded by different branches of the Armed Forces, the general eligibility criteria are similar. All four of these medals are awarded to individuals for extraordinary acts of heroism in combat.

While each branch has its own Cross, recipients do not have to belong to the branch awarding it or be a part of the U.S. Armed Forces. A well-known example is General Thomas Blamey, the first and only Australian Army officer to reach the rank of field marshal and a foreign recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross.

According to Home of Heroes, a combined 1,700 Distinguished Service Crosses, Navy Crosses, and Air Force Crosses were awarded during the Vietnam War.

Medal of Honor

The Medal of Honor (MOH) is the highest military decoration awarded by the United States Armed Forces. First awarded on March 25, 1863, the Medal of Honor has been awarded 3,535 times as of May 2023, including over 600 posthumous awards.

There are three distinct versions of the Medal of Honor: one awarded by the Army, one by the Navy, and one by the Air Force. Each feature distinctive gold star medals, and all three feature a unique blue service ribbon adorned with white stars.

The Army variant is recognizable by the green oak leaves on each branch of the gold star. The Navy version of the MOH features an anchor and lacks the word “VALOR” in a rectangular bar. The Air Force MOH can be recognized by its emblem of the Statue of Liberty.

According to Public Law 88-77, individuals may be considered by the President of the United States and the U.S. Congress for the Medal of Honor if they have distinguished themselves through “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity” and risked their lives above and beyond the call of duty in any of the three following circumstances:

  • Engaged in action against an enemy of the United States
  • Engaged in a military operation involving an opposing military force
  • Serving as part of a foreign force friendly to the United States and engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing military force where the United States is not a belligerent

According to the Medal of Honor Historical Society of the United States (MOHHSUS), 267 individuals have been awarded the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War.
As of May 2023, the last awards to Vietnam War participants were issued by President Joe Biden on July 5, 2022, to Staff Sergeant Edward Kaneshiro (posthumous), Specialist Five Dwight Birdwell, Specialist Five Dennis Fujii, and Ret. Major John Dufft.

Vietnam Era Ribbons

American Vietnam Military Heroes Who Earned Ribbons and Medals

Throughout the Vietnam War, numerous U.S. service members displayed exceptional bravery and dedication, earning them various Vietnam Era ribbons and awards.

U.S. servicemembers of all branches received decorations during the Vietnam War. Some of the most decorated include the following:

Staff Sergeant Jorge A. Otero Barreto

Jorge Otero Barreto served during the Vietnam War from 1959 to 1970, receiving the nicknames “Puerto Rican Rambo” and “Sergeant Rock” during his service with some of the most prestigious Army units, such as the 101st Airborne and the 173rd Airborne Brigade.

Otero Barreto received no less than 38 military decorations, including three Silver Stars, five Bronze Stars with V devices, five Air Medals, four Army Commendation Medals, and five Purple Hearts.

Colonel Robert L. Howard

Robert Howard was the most highly decorated Vietnam U.S. Army Special Forces officer. As a Special Forces officer, he notably fought alongside the MACV-SOG unit.

He was wounded 14 times over 54 months of combat operations in the Vietnam War, earning him numerous Vietnam Era ribbons and awards, including eight Purple Hearts. He is also one of only two U.S. service members who received the Distinguished Service Cross and the Medal of Honor.

Staff Sergeant Joe Ronnie Hooper

Joe Hooper, a native of South Carolina, is famous for serving in the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army during the Vietnam War and being one of the most decorated U.S. Army soldiers in history.

During his service as part of the Army, Hooper served alongside the 101st Airborne Division and the 506th Infantry Regiment. He is credited with having eliminated at least 115 North Vietnamese fighters and received numerous awards, including the Medal of Honor, two Silver Stars, six Bronze Stars, and eight Purple Hearts.

Rear Admiral James B. Stockdale

James Stockdale served as a U.S. Navy officer and aviator in the Vietnam War. He is noted as the commander of Fighter Squadron 51 at the Gulf of Tonkin and later the Carrier Air Wing 16.

Enemy fire shot down his A-4 Skyhawk plane in 1965, after which he was captured by enemy forces, becoming the senior-most Navy officer held captive at the infamous Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi alongside fellow Navy officer and future Senator John McCain.

While Stockdale received numerous awards, his most notable achievement is the Medal of Honor, awarded in recognition of his heroism and willingness to endure torture and endanger his life as a prisoner of war instead of capitulating.

Colonel George E. “Bud” Day

George “Bud” Day is one of the most accomplished officers in the U.S. Armed Forces, most famous for being a highly-decorated U.S. Air Force pilot during his service in the Vietnam War.

Before the Vietnam War, Day was a veteran of multiple wars and services, having been an enlisted Marine during World War II, an enlisted Army soldier from 1946 to 1949, and an Iowa Air National Guardsman from 1950 to 1955, after which he joined the U.S. Air Force.

During his service as an Air Force pilot in Vietnam, Day’s plane was shot down in 1967, sustaining injuries and becoming a prisoner of war multiple times, earning him some of the most prestigious Vietnam Era ribbons, including being the only servicemember in U.S. history to have earned both the Air Force Cross and the Medal of Honor.

“Bud” Day received over 70 military decorations, including the Silver Star, the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal, two Legions of Merit, 4 Bronze Stars (including 3 with V device), and 4 Purple Hearts.

First Sergeant Jimmie E. Howard

A Korean War veteran and member of the prestigious USMC 1st Recon Battalion, Jimmie Howard was a 36-year-old Staff Sergeant who had already received a Silver Star, a Navy Unit Commendation, and a Purple Heart when he began his service in the Vietnam War in 1966.

Less than a month after arriving in the country, Howard and 15 other 1st Recon marines faced a wave of 300 NVA soldiers in what became known as the Battle of Hill 488. His heroism and unwillingness to stop fighting and giving orders earned him the Medal of Honor and numerous other awards.

How to Wear a Vietnam-Era Ribbon

Proper display and arrangement of Vietnam Era ribbons, awards, and medals are crucial to maintaining the dignity and respect these awards deserve.

Recipients should wear ribbons in rows above the left breast pocket of the dress or service uniform, with the highest-ranking ribbons in the top row. Ribbons are typically not worn on field or combat uniforms.

When a servicemember has multiple ribbons, they must respect the order of precedence, with the most significant award on the wearer's right.

Commonly Confused Ribbons

Due to similarities in appearance, specific Vietnam Era ribbons and awards may sometimes be confused with other, typically more recent military awards or decorations. It is essential to differentiate each ribbon's unique designs, colors, and characteristics to avoid confusing Vietnam decorations with others.

Some commonly confused ribbons include:

Legion of Merit vs. Meritorious Service Medal

While both medals feature crimson ribbons with two white bands, the Legion of Merit’s white bands are thin and at the ribbon’s extremities, whereas the Meritorious Service Medals are wider and closer to the center.

Silver Star vs. Distinguished Flying Cross

Both high-ranking awards feature blue, white, and red ribbons with the red band in the center. However, the Silver Star can be distinguished from the DFC by its wider red band, flanked by white bands of approximately equal width, whereas the DFC’s red band is thinner, with wider blue bands.

Air Medal vs. Navy Expeditionary Medal

At first glance, these awards feature similar ribbons: blue with two yellow bands. However, the colors and widths of each band are slightly different. On the Air Medal, the bands are golden colored, thinner, and further apart, whereas the Navy Expeditionary Medal has wider and more yellow bands.

Remember and Honor Our Veterans with Freedom Fatigues

Vietnam Era ribbons and awards are more than proofs of service; they symbolize each servicemember’s courage, bravery, and sacrifices during the Vietnam War. 

By understanding the unique designs, colors, and meanings behind these awards, we can better appreciate and honor the commitment of the veterans who served during this challenging period in American history.

Freedom Fatigues is proudly veteran-owned and operated. Purchasing Freedom Fatigues apparel and gear featuring Vietnam Era ribbons is one of the best ways to remember and honor the sacrifices of our nation’s best men and women.