By Mary V. Danielsen of Documented Legacy
As with any personal life story, only a veteran can tell the complete story of what it was like to experience serving in the United States Armed Forces and being a moment in our American history. Few families, however, possess their military veteran’s complete records, medals and certificates either, because their veterans never compiled them or family members never bothered to preserve them.
One’s military history is a huge part in your family history. It is a branch on the genealogy tree that can connect generations through duty to serve. Here is some advice to get you started preserving the box of assorted military medals, ribbons, coins, citations and other memorabilia that are collected, but hidden away.
The first thing you should do is obtain a copy of the service person’s discharge papers that lists all their honors, awards or citations, according to Rusty Blair, Military Awards Specialist with Medals of America in Fountain Inn, South Carolina. If veterans are still alive they can request the papers themselves. The reason for doing this is twofold. You want to ensure that you have the complete list of honors and medals in case something went missing at home. Secondly, sometimes honors are bestowed on veterans after their time in service. For instance, in 2002 the Korea Defense Service Medal was created when it was signed into law by President George W. Bush to recognize those members of the United States Armed Forces who have served duty in South Korea after the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement. The medal is retroactive to the end of the Korean War and is granted to any service preformed after July 28, 1954. The National Personnel Records Center is responsible for verifying entitlement of the KDSM to discharged members of the military.
With a complete list in hand you can begin to preserve your military medals. Bring any other papers and memorabilia into the same location. Store your collection out of the elements and away from direct light or water sources that may cause items to rust, mold or attract pests. (So, avoid the garage, attic or basement storage areas.)
If medals are missing in your collection, you can either request a duplicate from the government or purchase replacements from a third party source, such as a military medals specialty company. If the veteran is still alive, it’s best that he or she request the replacements. Note that high valor awards, such as the Silver Star or Medal of Honor, will require documentation in order to receive a duplicate copy. Military medal specialty companies sometimes have information on file or will know where to search for proof.
Once you have compiled a complete list, take the time to scan or photograph each of these items to include in your overall preservation efforts. The reason for doing this is 1) to have a backup copy of your information to keep with your private papers and, 2) to establish easily accessible information that can be utilized in other projects. Say, for instance, you preserve your Dad’s military medals in a shadow box. Your cousin likes the idea and frames her Mom and Dad’s military medals. Someone else in the family tree has records and uniforms of veterans serving in World War I. Now you have the basis of a family history project and are connecting stories through military service.
Family history projects are vital components in the social studies curriculum of many elementary and high school programs. The steps you take now could save you time when grandchildren and nieces and nephews or neighbors call for information. As well you can compile information to donate to the Library of Congress Veterans History Project.
Photograph any memorabilia you don’t plan to save, such as old tents, cots, gas masks, knives and backpacks. These may be things you enjoyed, but due to a desire to downsize your home you may not want to save them for the next generation. With photos you’ll preserve their existence and continue to tell your military history story.
Be creative using your Flip-Pal mobile scanner and digital camera. Use the flip-and-scan method to capture images of your medals one at a time. Scan your private papers and old letters. A neat trick is to scan textiles to use in an artful way in other projects. There’s nothing like the image of care worn leather on an Air Force flight jacket or the woven olive green fibers of an Army uniform. I once scanned my father in law’s Purple Heart against an American flag and frequently shoot images of veterans holding medals in their hands. When my nephew returned home from Iraq I photographed his boots once he was standing on American soil. It’s better to scan or photograph items before your frame them, as it’s difficult to capture images through glass later on.
The most common form of preserving military medals is to place them under glass in either a shadow box or display case. Another option is using a specially-designed memento box with an insignia for your veteran’s branch of service. It’s similar to the storage chests used for keeping sterling silver flatware and is another option for storing items you may not want included in a display case.
When organizing a military history it’s important to understand the types of medals and honors that may have been bestowed upon your family member. You may find random pins or ribbons at home and not understand where they came from.
Military medals come in two types: decoration and service medals. Decorations are individual awards for valor, heroism, achievement or meritorious service and usually have a distinctive shape, such as a star, cross or hexagon. They usually consist of a ribbon and medallion. Service medals are circular in shape and awarded for participation in a particular campaign, expedition, occupation or emergency duty. General service medals are awarded to everyone in military service while campaign medals are awarded to members who participated in a specific military campaign.
Campaigns, battles, and assault landings, such as the Invasion on Normandy, are indicated by small metal devices attached to the ribbon of the medal. These attachments come in the shape of stars, oak leaves, numerals, etc and are very important for correctly showing the holder’s service. These are the little pins that can easily get lost in an un-preserved collection and end up in a random pile of pins in an old jewelry box. There are specific rules regarding how these attachments should be displayed.
Blair recommends that before you begin composing a shadow box, you speak to a military awards specialist on the proper order to display your medals. Ribbons and medals vary with each branch of service. As well, each branch has its own unique rules and regulations regarding its awards and their order precedence and how to display them. The highest ranking medals are displayed starting on the top left. Any award displays are always enhanced by the use of patches, uniform insignia, skill badges, dog tags, P-38 can openers, shell casings, rings, rank and hat insignia, and foreign medals. A brass name plate should identify the veteran by full name, branch of service, unit, rank, entry and separation dates.
If someone wanted a display on a smaller scale, Blair suggests they create a shadowbox of either miniature medals, which can be purchased, or ribbon bars, the rectangular shaped bars of the same ribbons used on the full size medals.
What if everyone in the family wants to own Granddad’s military medal display? The good news is it can be duplicated. You can either order duplicate medals; have a military awards specialist recreate the entire display case; carefully photograph the display case and frame it; or create an artful display, such as a photo book, using the photos and scans you took before you created the display case. Blair gave a recent example of creating six duplicate shadowboxes of military medals for one family.
When multiple family members are involved in preservation efforts we elevate the value of saving and retelling veterans’ military history and their contribution to our country.
Handle military medals as little as possible. The acid in human perspiration can cause oxidation of your medals. Brush off any dirt using an art or pencil eraser. Don’t polish old medals, as it wears the medal. The natural patina helps identify its age.
The American War Library has compiled the following links for the proper Order of Display for military medals for each military branch.
Navy Order of Display – http://www.americanwarlibrary.com/display/usn.htm
Marine Order of Display – http://www.americanwarlibrary.com/display/usmc.htm
Air Force Order of Display – http://www.americanwarlibrary.com/display/usaf.htm
Coast Guard Order of Display – http://www.americanwarlibrary.com/display/uscg.htm
Army Order of Display – http://www.americanwarlibrary.com/display/usa.htm
Merchant Marines Order of Display – http://www.americanwarlibrary.com/display/usmm.htm