David Petraeus' uniform: What do all those stars, medals, and ribbons mean?

David Petraeus' uniform: What do all those stars, medals, and ribbons mean?

David Petraeus' uniform: What do all those stars, medals, and ribbons mean?

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May 18 2011 10:15 AM

Decorated Officer

An interactive guide to all the stars, medals, and ribbons on the uniform of Gen. David Petraeus.

In the likely event that the Senate confirms Gen. David Petraeus as the CIA's next director in the coming months, he'll retire from the military and start wearing civvies to work. * This will mean hanging up one of the most decorated uniforms currently in active service. What do all those medals, ribbons, and badges mean? Hover over the highlighted sections of the photographs below to find out.

Petraeus' decorations are a mix of awards and insignia from the U.S. military, the State Department, international organizations like the United Nations and NATO, and even foreign governments. Some simply indicate affiliation with an organizational unit; some were bestowed upon Petraeus after he completed key training courses; some recognize service in particular military campaigns; and some were awarded for specific accomplishments or acts of heroism.

While the military publishes the general criteria required to earn its awards and badges, it is difficult—and sometimes impossible—to determine the specific reasons active-duty personnel have received a particular decoration. (You can, however, file Freedom of Information Act requests for veterans' military records and award citations.)

These photographs were taken in March and April of 2011.

<b>101st Airborne Division Shoulder Patch</b>, also known as the &ldquo;Screaming Eagle.&rdquo; Petraeus led this infantry division during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Petraeus no longer commands the division&mdash;he was promoted in June 2004 to be first commander of the Multi-National Security Transition Command in Iraq. But soldiers and officers can continue to wear the shoulder-sleeve insignias of units for which they previously served in combat.<b>Grade Insignia</b>. Petraeus was promoted to general in February 2007, a rank which entitles him to wear four stars on each shoulder. (Lieutenant generals wear three stars, major generals wear two, and brigadier generals wear one.) There are only two Army ranks higher than general: the five-star general of the Army, which has not been given to anyone since Omar Bradley in 1950, and general of the Armies, bestowed only upon John J. Pershing, in 1919, and posthumously to George Washington in 1976.<b>101st Airborne Division Distinctive Unit Insignia</b>. Petraeus led this infantry division during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. This insignia is metal and enamel, and bears the inscription, “RENDEZVOUS WITH DESTINY.”<b>French Parachutist Badge</b>. Petraeus&rsquo; service uniform carries all of his authorized U.S. military decorations, but he has run out of space to display all of his foreign military decorations, according to his spokesman. Foreign military decorations must be approved for wear by the U.S. military. Some, like Petraeus&rsquo; French, German, and British parachutist badges indicate training with a foreign ally. Others, like his ribbon from the Order of Australia, are honorary. Judging from other photographs, it appears that Petraeus rotates his foreign decorations.<b>Joint Meritorious Unit Award</b>, with three oak clusters to indicate three additional bestowals of the award. This award goes to members of groups that exceeded expectations in operations involving multiple branches of the armed forces; among unit awards, it is second in prestige only to the Presidential Unit Citation. Unit awards are typically given to a battalion or smaller grouping, like a company, platoon, or squad. (The JMUA is an exception, with awards going to much larger groups like the United States Transportation Command and DARPA.) They’re worn on the right side of a uniform, while individual awards are worn on the left.<b>Army Meritorious Unit Commendation</b>. Like the Joint Meritorious Unit Award, but for &ldquo;performance of outstanding services for at least six continuous months&rdquo; within the Army.<b>Army Superior Unit Award</b>. For &ldquo;outstanding&rdquo; performance not quite deserving of a Meritorious Unit Commendation.<b>Army Staff Identification Badge</b>. Awarded to outstanding members of the Army General Staff who have served for at least one year. Can be worn after leaving the position. Early in his career, Petraeus served as an aide to the chief of staff of the Army.<b>Joint Chiefs of Staff Identification Badge</b>. Early in his career, Petraeus was executive assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.<b>Overseas Service Bars</b>. Each bar represents six months of overseas duty in a combat zone.<b>Ribbon Rack</b>. These ribbon bars typically replace their full medal versions, when wearing all those shiny awards would be too impractical or showy. Ribbon racks are sometimes jokingly called &ldquo;fruit salad.&rdquo; See the photo below for information about the individual ribbons.
The <b>Combat Action Badge</b> is one of the Army&lsquo;s newest awards, approved in 2005. Soldiers directly engaged in combat since Sept. 18, 2001, are eligible to receive the badge, which indicates service rather than merit or valor.The <b>Defense Distinguished Service Medal</b> is Petraeus&lsquo; most prestigious military decoration and the military&lsquo;s highest possible noncombat award. (The only awards that are more prestigious are the Medal of Honor and the Crosses awarded by the individual branches of the military—all combat awards.) Here, Petraeus wears its ribbon bar, with two oak-leaf clusters, each signifying an additional bestowal of the same award. The medal itself is gold-colored and features an eagle clutching three arrows. An estimated 500 have ever been awarded. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates presented Petraeus with his second Defense Distinguished Service Medal the evening before he handed over the top American military post in Iraq to Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno.<b>Army Distinguished Service Medal</b>, with an oak leaf cluster to indicate Petraeus received the medal a second time. Similar to the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, but for Army-specific service and slightly less prestigious. Roughly 5,000 have ever been awarded in the Army. Equivalent medals are awarded in the Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps. <b>Defense Superior Service Medal</b>, with one oak leaf cluster. It ranks below the Silver Star but above the Legion of Merit. The full medal is similar in design to the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, but in silver-colored metal instead of gold-colored metal.<b>Legion of Merit</b>, with three oak leaf clusters. The Legion of Merit can be awarded to both U.S. and foreign military personnel, as well as foreign politicians.<b>Bronze Star Medal</b>, with bronze &ldquo;V&rdquo; to indicate it was awarded for valor or extreme courage. It is awarded for &ldquo;meritorious achievement or service&rdquo; in combat. This is Petraeus&rsquo; highest combat award and the military&rsquo;s fourth-highest combat award overall.<b>Defense Meritorious Service Medal</b>. Like the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, this medal is awarded only in recognition of achievements while assigned to operations involving two or more branches of the armed forces.<b>Army Meritorious Service Medal</b>, with two oak leaf clusters. Similar to the Defense Meritorious Distinguished Service Medal, but for Army-specific service.Tip of the <b>Army Commendation Medal</b>, with two oak leaf clusters. Commendation medals rank below Meritorious Service medals but above Achievement medals.<b>Joint Service Achievement Medal</b>. Less prestigious than Commendation Medals and generally awarded only to junior personnel. The full medal is a 12-point star superimposed with an eagle clutching three arrows.<b>National Defense Service Medal</b>, with two service stars. Awarded to soldiers and officers for honorable active (though not necessarily combat) service during the Korean War, Vietnam War, Gulf War, or Global War on Terrorism. Petraeus has received this medal three times, for active service during the latter three wars.<a href="#correction2">*</a><b>Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal</b>, with two service stars. In recognition of participation in military, U.N., and foreign-assistance operations in the face of imminent danger, but for which no other U.S. campaign medals are authorized. Petraeus’ participation in Haiti-focused Operation Uphold Democracy, for instance, qualifies him for the medal.Tip of the <b>Afghanistan Campaign Medal</b>, with two service stars. On campaign medals, the number of service stars indicate the number of campaigns served. For the Afghanistan Campaign Medal, three stars are available, for participation in Liberation of Afghanistan (Sept. 11, 2001, to Nov. 30, 2001), Consolidation I (Dec. 1, 2001, to Sept. 30, 2006), and Consolidation II (Oct. 1, 2006, to present).<b>Iraq Campaign Medal</b>, with four service stars.<b>Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal</b>, for overseas service in Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) and Operation Iraqi Freedom.<b>Armed Forces Service Medal</b>. Similar to the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, but for actions &ldquo;through which no foreign armed opposition or imminent threat of hostile action was encountered.&rdquo; Petraeus’ participation in Operation Joint Forge in Yugoslavia, for instance, qualifies him for the medal.<b>Humanitarian Service Medal</b>, awarded for participation in humanitarian operations. Full medal features an open palm reaching diagonally upward.<b>Army Service Ribbon</b>. Available to all active and active-reserve members of the Army, Army National Guard, and U.S. Army Reserve.<b>United Nations Mission in Haiti Medal</b><b>NATO Meritorious Service Medal</b><b>NATO Medal</b>, with two bronze service stars.<b>French Military Campaign Medal</b>. This award can be given to civilians and solders, both French and foreign, who served under French command after March 1, 1991, including campaigns in (former) Yugoslavia, Haiti, and Afghanistan.<b>Honorary Officer of the Order of Australia Ribbon</b>. Petraeus is one of roughly 70 recipients, all non-Australians, of this award, which Queen Elizabeth II established in 1975.<b>Gold Award of the Iraqi Order of the Date Palm</b>. Petraeus is reportedly the only American to have received this award, issued by the Iraqi government.<b>Commander of the French Legion of Honor</b>. The Legion of Honor is France&rsquo;s most prestigious award. Commander is the third-highest of five degrees.<b>Master Parachutist Badge</b>. Eligibility requirements include 65 airborne jumps, at least 25 with combat equipment. Sometimes called &ldquo;Jump Wings&rdquo; or &ldquo;Snow Cone.&rdquo;<b>Air Assault Badge</b>. Awarded upon completion of the 10-day Air Assault School training course.The <b>Ranger Tab</b> indicates that Petraeus has graduated from the U.S. Army Ranger School, a 61-day course the Army calls &ldquo;the most physically and mentally demanding leadership school [it] has to offer.&rdquo;<b>United States Forces Afghanistan Shoulder Sleeve Insignia</b>



•          Joint Service Commendation Medal. Less prestigious than a Meritorious Service Medal but more prestigious than an Achievement Medal. The full medal depicts a gold-colored metal eagle, clutching three arrows and superimposed upon four conjoined green hexagons, which represent the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps.

•          Army Achievement Medal. Less prestigious than a Commendation Medal and generally awarded only to junior personnel. Full medal is a bronze octagon superimposed with an Army plaque and "1775."

•          Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, for support duty inside the United States for Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) and Operation Iraqi Freedom.


•          Army Overseas Service Ribbon is presented to Army members who complete an overseas tour of duty. The numeral 3 is attached to Petraeus' ribbon to indicate three additional overseas tours.

•          Expert Infantryman Badge, awarded upon completion of a rigorous infantry course.

•          State Department Secretary's Distinguished Service Award. Then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice presented this award to Petraeus in December 2008 for his work as the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

•          State Department Superior Honor Award. Like the State Department's Distinguished Service Award, but less prestigious. The eligibility requirements are broad but generally recognize contributions to the department's goals. You can even get it for "[i]nnovation and creativity in accomplishing long-term tasks or projects" or "[c]ontributions that resulted in increased productivity and efficiency, and economy of operations at agency level."


•          Cross of Merit of the Minister of Defense of the Czech Republic (1st Grade)

•          Polish Iraq Star. Awarded to Polish participants in the Iraq War, as well as non-Polish citizens who have collaborated with the Polish forces there.

•          Polish Army Medal (Gold)

•          Romanian Emblem of Honor


•          Commander of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland

•          British Army Parachutist Badge (Junior level)

•          German Parachutist Badge (Bronze)

Correction, May 20, 2011: The interactive feature on this page originally stated that Gen. Petraeus earned his three National Defense Service Medals for service in Operation Desert Spring, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation Enduring Freedom. Rather, he earned them for active service during the Vietnam War, Gulf War, and the Global War on Terrorism.  National Defense Service Medals were not issued for service during Operation Desert Spring.

Correction, May 18, 2011: This article originally stated that Gen. Petraeus would "resign from the military." He'll retire from the military. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)