Established by Congress in July, 1960, the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) is awarded to any person serving in any capacity in the Air Force whose service to the United States in carrying out a duty of great responsibility is deemed exceptionally meritorious. Until that time, Air Force personnel whose service would have qualified them for the award were given the U.S. Army DSM, which was established in 1918.

When the Air Force turned to the Army’s Institute of Heraldry for the design of its version of the DSM in the late 1950s, the artist originally tasked with creating the new medal was Thomas Hudson Jones. Sometimes referred to as the “Maestro of Medals”—he was responsible for the design of more than forty U.S. military awards—Jones based his design on the DSMs issued by the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard.

But for some reason the Air Force decided to reboot the design process, and Jones’ original concept featuring a bronze, circular disk was repurposed as the Airman’s Medal. In its place, The Air Force chose an eye-catching design by Frank Alston, also from the Institute of Heraldry, that bears no resemblance to the DSM issued by the other four branches of the armed forces. It features a sunburst comprised of thirteen gold rays separated by an equal number of white star; the centerpiece is a semiprecious blue stone.

Because of the stipulation that the exceptionally meritorious service to the country must be performed while carrying out a “duty of great responsibility clause,” the Air Force DSM is almost always awarded to general officers. Notable exceptions to this rule of thumb are Colonel Buzz Aldrin, second man to walk on the moon, and Colonel Lawrence Guarino, who spent seven years at a prisoner of war and was the senior ranking officer at the largest POW camp in North Vietnam. It is also typically awarded to the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, the service’s most senior enlisted members, upon retirement.

In 2003, the Secretary of the Air Force revised the regulations for the awarding of the DSM, limiting the total that any person could receive to four: three for exceptionally meritorious service and one for retirement. Another major change to the DSM came in 2017, when the Department of Defense and the Air Force announced that the medal would be authorized for wear with the new established “C” combat device. Intended to denote that the DSM recipient earned the award under combat conditions (but not necessarily having been engaged in combat), the “C” device can be rewarded retroactively to 7 January 2016.

While the “C” device is authorized for wear on service-specific, cross-service, and joint-service medals, the Air Force version is the only one designed to indicate that the wearer has earned the DSM with “C” device more than once. The first instance of an Air Force DSM awarded with the “C” device is indicated with a bronze letter; the second with a silver letter, and the third with a gold letter. A wreath is to those colored letters to indicate the fourth, fifth, and sixth awards of the “C” devices; a bronze wreathed “C”, for instance, would denote the wearer had earned the Air Force DSM with “C” a total of four times.

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