According to Department of Defense Manual 1348.33, the Armed Forces Service Medal (AFSM) was established in 1996 as a potential replacement for the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal (AFEM) established over 34 years earlier by President John Kennedy. But one of the AFSM’s main criteria—that Servicemembers faced no foreign armed opposition or even imminent hostile action as they participated in a U.S. military operation that is deemed a significant activity—stands in direct contrast with the AFEM’s stipulation that candidates face foreign-armed opposition (or the imminent threat thereof). Consequently, the two awards are distinct, with the AFSM being at its core the non-combat version of the AFEM.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) are the ultimate arbiters of the AFSM; it is awarded to members of the U.S. Armed Forces who, in the opinion of the JCS, participated as members of a U.S. military unit in a U.S. Military operation that is “deemed to be a significant activity” and which encountered no foreign armed opposition or imminent hostile actions. Participation must have taken place subsequent to June 1, 1992.

To qualify for the medal, Servicemembers must have been permanently assigned, detailed, or attached to a unit that deployed within a designated Area of Engagement (AOE) for a requisite amount time that varies based upon the nature and extent of the operation. The default is 30 consecutive or 60 non-consecutive days; these standards are waived if the full period of the operation is less than 30 days.

Other standards for qualification include engaging in direct support in the AOE for 60 non-consecutive days, 30 consecutive days, or the entire duration of the operation (if less than 30 days, provided that “support” involved entering AOE. For crew member flying sorties into, out of, and over the AOE, the first sortie flown on any day during the operation counts a full day of service (subsequent sorties flown on the same day do not add to cumulative service days).

While the Joint Chiefs determine AFSM recipients, it is the Secretary of Defense who authorizes the AFSM for significant U.S. Military activities for which no other medals or awards are appropriate. Examples include Peacekeeping operations, extended humanitarian operations, and U.S. Military operations in direct support of the United Nations or NATO (although the nature of the mission cannot involve combat). To date, thirteen operations have been approved for award of the AFSM.

The nature of the services rendered during an AFSM operation closely overlap those carried out during Humanitarian Service missions, which are approved by both the Department of Defense and the Department of the Army and lead to the awarding of the Humanitarian Service Medal (HSM). The main distinction between the two types of mission and medals is that the HSM is awarded only for service carried out immediate relief as opposed to ongoing operations that continue once the immediate crisis has been addressed.

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