Military Times NOW hosts the HomeOfHeroes  Awards & Citations Database

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Recipients of the
Distinguished Service Medal

Defense DSM

Army DSM

Navy DSM



Merchant Marine DSM

The Medal of Honor, Services Crosses, and Silver Star are, in that order, the three highest awards that can be presented to a member of the U.S. Military, and may also with the SOLE exception of the Medal of Honor, be awarded to American Civilians or members of Allied forces. Sandwiched above the Silver Star and below the Service Crosses are the Distinguished Service Medals of the Defense Department and the branches of military service.

Distinguished Service Medals are awarded for exceptionally meritorious and distinguished service in a position of great responsibility to the Government of the United States, and can be awarded for such service as part of a valorous act in combat, continuous acts of valor over a period of time, for distinguished service in non-combat positions of great responsibility, and even for a career of exceptionally meritorious and distinguished service in a position of great responsibility. As such, the Distinguished Service Medals are the HIGHEST awards for non-combat actions of the Department of Defense and the individual branches of service.

The DEFENSE Distinguished Service Medal became the NEWEST of these awards when it was authorized on July 9, 1920. It is presented by the Department of Defense, and as such, takes precedence over the DSMs of the branches of service.

Both the Army and Navy Distinguished Service Medals were established in 1918 and 1919 respectively, as part of the new Pyramid of Honor that came out of the Medal of Honor review of 1917. They were part of the program to authorize new awards for presentation to veterans of World War I who performed heroically, gallantly, and/or meritoriously during the war but whose service and/or actions did not rise to the level demanded for award of the Medal of Honor. (Until 1942 the Navy DSM took precedence over the Navy Cross.) 

During World War II, a Distinguished Service Medal was authorized to members of the United States Merchant Marines by Congressional Action in 1942 and was retroactive to September 3, 1939, encompassing the period of service of Merchant Mariners in the earliest days before the United States entered World War I. Since Merchant Mariners were auxiliary to the Navy and today are not employed under the Department of Defense, they are NOT eligible for the Medal of Honor (restricted to members of the U.S. Military, making it the USMM's highest award.

Members of the U.S. Coast Guard, unlike the Merchant Marines, were eligible for award of the Medal of Honor, and one Coast Guardsman was in fact posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in World War II. Members of the Coast Guard are also eligible for award of the Navy Cross (earning 55 in history), as well as the NAVY Distinguished Service Medal. In 1949 however, the Coast Guard was authorized its own unique, Coast Guard Distinguished Service Medal. (The award has undergone variations as a result of the post-911 transfer of the Coast Guard to the Department of Homeland Security.)

Until 1947 members of the Air Service, Air Corps, and Air Forces were adjunct to the U.S. Army, and as such were awarded the Army Medal of Honor, Army Distinguished Service Cross, and Army Distinguished Service Medal. Subsequent to establishment of the U.S. Air Force as a separate branch of service however, members of our newest branch of military continued to receive Army awards until the Air Force established its own Air Force Medal of Honor, Air Force Cross, and Air Force Distinguished Service Medal in 1960.

Distinguished Service Medals are often considered an award reserved for Colonels and General Officers, and to some extent this is true. By nature of their rank, such officers find themselves more commonly tasked with positions of great responsibility within which to render distinguished service. A sampling of 3,804 Army Distinguished Service Medals to members of the U.S. Army yields the following results:




Rank Awards   Rank Awards
General of the Army 7 Sergeant Major 3
General 78 First Sergeant 28
Lieutenant General 206 Sergeant First Class 4
Major General 994 Staff Sergeant 1
Brigadier General 890 Sergeant 36
Colonel 1,017 Corporal 45
Lieutenant Colonel 308 Private 74
Major 72 Private First Class 4
Captain 14    
First Lieutenant 15    
Second Lieutenant 5    

From the links below you can learn more about the individual Distinguished Service Medals, find lists of recipients, and access many of their citations:

Defense DSM

Army DSM

Navy DSM

Air Force DSM

Coast Guard DSM

Merchant Marine DSM

Links to other awards in the Pyramid of Honor

Honor Roll of America's Most Decorated Military Heroes

Medal of Honor

USMC Brevet Medal


Navy Cross 

Air Force Cross 

Distinguished Service Medals

Defense - Army - Navy - Air Force - Coast Guard - Merchant Marine

Silver Star

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