The Medal of Honor is known as the Pyramid of Honor: the hierarchy of military awards for gallantry, valor and heroism. The Purple Heart forms the base. At the top is the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest medal for valor in combat. It is unique in every way: It is the only military medal that is worn around the neck. Its recipients are the only individuals whom the President salutes as a matter of custom. The Medal is awarded by the President, in the name of Congress, to U.S. military personnel for: “Conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his or her life above and beyond the call of duty.”
Since the first Medal of Honor was awarded in March 1863, more than 25 million men and women have served during our nation’s conflicts. To date, 3,512 Medals of Honor have been presented to 3,492 service men and to one woman. Nineteen men received two Medals – 14 of them for two separate actions and five received both Army and Navy Medals of Honor for the same action. Today, there are 79 living recipients of the Medal of Honor.
The appearance of the Medals of Honor has not changed significantly since they were first designed during the Civil War. The original designs featured:
- Inverted five-point stars.
- Laurel leaves that symbolized victory and oak leaves that stood for strength
- Thirty-four stars represented the number of stars on the American flag, including the 11 Confederate states
- Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and war, stood inside the circle of 34 stars. The owl on her helmet symbolized wisdom. The shield she wields in one hand represents the U.S. Coat of Arms. The male figure cowering before her and holding snakes stands for “discord.”
- The Navy version of the Medal is suspended from an anchor. The Army version is suspended from an eagle holding cannons and cannonballs in its talons