Historically military service in peacetime has been quite different from service during time of war. During peacetime personal risk, family separation, and other hardships are reduced, and military service is essentially a matter of training and preparation for war. Once war has been declared the major thrust of military service shifts to deployment, combat operations, and operational support.
- Service During a Period of National Emergency
Campaign and commemorative medals reward and acknowledge service during time of war, but what about those peculiar periods when the nation is not at war - but either expects to be or is providing combat support to the United Nations or some other multi-national force?
This issue first came to the fore just prior to the Second World War when President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared a "limited emergency" on September 8, 1939 and an "unlimited emergency" on May 27, 1941. It was clear that after war broke out in Europe and Asia, it was only a matter of time before the United States would also enter the war. The period between September 8, 1939 (when Germany invaded Poland) and December 7, 1941 (when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor) was neither an official time of war nor an official time of peace: it was a period of "emergency."
It was under these circumstances that - for the first time - the United States created a service medal that specifically acknowledged service during a period of emergency. That medal was the American Defense Service Medal, which became obsolete when the United States officially entered the Second World War.
When the Korean War broke out in 1950, the United States did not respond by declaring war on North Korea but by joining with the United Nations in providing military support to South Korea. This produced an interesting situation: American military personnel were called upon to fight in a war that was not declared and did so under the umbrella of a multinational organization. Obviously, not everyone in the military was sent to Korea, but just about anyone who was in the Armed Forces was at risk for being sent there. The government responded by reviving the American Defense Service Medal in a new format as the National Defense Service Medal. The "military crisis" of course was the Korean War, and anyone who served during its inclusive dates was eligible for the National Defense Service Medal. The same thing happened during the Vietnam War, the First Gulf War, and during the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. The United States did not declare war against North Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan but provided large-scale, active military support as part of a multi-national coalition. Military personnel who served in the operational theaters received the appropriate campaign medal and everyone received the National Defense Service Medal.
- Service During a Military Crisis
Although women have historically been barred from serving in combat roles, they have provided valuable support to combat and other operations. Their contributions to the war effort during World War II were important enough to be recognized by a special medal: the Women's Army Corps medal. It was unique in two key respects. First, it is gender specific: only women could receive it. Second, no comparable medal has been authorized since then.
The military is uniquely qualified to provide assistance in the aftermath of natural disasters. It has the equipment, personnel and logistics infrastructure needed to provide humanitarian support and relief supplies to ease the suffering and disruption caused by disasters. Until recent years this was never a key role for the military, but it this kind of mission has become increasingly common since the 1970s. In recognition the Government created the Humanitarian Service Medal. This medal specifically recognizes humanitarian missions during a declared non-military crisis.
Since the events of September 11, 2001 the military has faced an entirely new and complicated situation. Since the War on Terrorism is global in nature, the Department of Defense wanted to establish a generic medal rather than a specific campaign medal. In order to distinguish between personnel who were actually deployed to fight from those who provide operational support, the Department of Defense created two medals: the War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal and the War on Terrorism Service medal. The War on Terrorism Service Medal was originally intended to be limited in scope and specific in its application. Unfortunately, since the Department of Defense allowed the individual Services to establish their own criteria for the medal, its criteria have been interpreted in the broadest possible way. As a result it is essentially a replacement for the National Defense Service Medal, even though the NDSM continues to be awarded. As a footnote, because the Department of Defense refused to establish campaign medals for Afghanistan and Iraq, Congress did so on its own authority (for convenience they are listed under both Campaign and Commemorative medals).
- The Unique Case of the Women's Army Corps