The Commendation Medal is a mid-level United States military award which is presented for sustained acts of heroism or meritorious service. For valorous actions in direct contact with an enemy force, but of a lesser degree than required for the award of the Bronze Star , the Valor device ("V" device) may be authorized as an attachment to the decoration. Each branch of the United States Armed Forces issues its own version of the Commendation Medal, with a fifth version existing for acts of joint military service performed under the Department of Defense.
The Commendation Medal was originally a ribbon, and was first issued by the Navy and U.S. Coast Guard in 1943. An Army Commendation Ribbon followed in 1945, and in 1949, the Navy, Coast Guard, and Army Commendation ribbons were renamed the "Commendation Ribbon with Medal Pendant." By 1960, the Commendation Ribbons had been authorized as full medals and were subsequently referred to as Commendation Medals.
For additional awards of the Commendation Medal, the Army issues bronze and silver oak leaf clusters while the Navy and Coast Guard furnish gold and silver award stars. The Operational Distinguishing Device is authorized for the Coast Guard Commendation Medal upon approval of the awarding authority.
The Commendation Medal is awarded by local commanders, requiring the signature of an Officer in the grade of O-6, allowing for a broad interpretation of the criteria for which the medal may be awarded. For instance, in the U.S. Navy and United States Marine Corps, the Commendation Medal is considered a somewhat-high decoration reserved for Department level officers, senior CPOs, and as a retirement award. The awarding of the Commendation Medal in the U.S. Army is not limited to senior service members, and is often awarded to NCO's and junior officers, or simply issued as an end-of-tour award.
The U.S. Air Force began issuing its own Commendation Medal in 1958 with additional awards denoted by oak leaf clusters. It was not until 1996 that the "V" device was authorized on the Air Force Commendation Medal. Prior to that time, there was not a Valor distinction in effect for the Air Force Commendation Medal.
U.S. Marines have always been issued the Navy Commendation Medal and there is not a separate Commendation Medal intended only for Marines. This lack of difference was recognized in 1994 when Secretary of the Navy John Howard Dalton changed the name of the Navy Commendation Medal to the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal.
The last of the Commendation Medals is the Joint Service Commendation Medal which was created in 1963. This award is intended for senior service on a joint military staff and is generally considered to be a somewhat-higher ranking decoration. As such, it is worn above the service Commendation Medals on a military uniform. As a joint award, multiple awards are denoted with an oak leaf cluster regardless of service.
Each of the military services also issue an Achievement Medal, which is a lesser decoration.