Inspired in part by the Navy’s establishment of a medal in the1960s to recognize noteworthy achievements and meritorious serious, discussions of an Army equivalent did not begin to gain momentum until the conclusion of the Vietnam War, in part because there was hesitancy to add another medal to the awards system.
But gradually it became realized that some sort of award or medal was needed to acknowledge the contributions of the vast number of Army personnel— particularly junior soldiers—who had contributed to the war effort in the Army in non-combat roles. Rather than increasing the number of Meritorious Service Medal or Army Commendation Medal awarded, which might tend to diminish the esteem held for those medals, the decision was made to establish the Army Achievement Medal to recognize achievements that were certainly significant, but which did not rise to the level necessary to qualify for the Army Commendation Medal.
As the title indicates, the Army Achievement Medal was originally intended to honor achievement as opposed to service, but from its authorization date of 10 April 1981, there was some confusion as to precisely what would qualify a soldier or officer for the award. (Note: General Officers are excluded from eligibility.) According to U.S. Army historian Fred L. Borch, some commanders issued the medal to soldiers who achieved a perfect score on the Army Physical Fitness Test; others recipients were chosen because of extracurricular volunteer work, such as a serving as a coach in a young athletic league.
Today, the wording of the regulations for the Army Achievement Medal makes it plain that the honor is being bestowed for meritorious service or achievement to a lesser degree than that needed for the Army Commendation Medal. The medal is not limited to Army personnel: Servicemembers from any branch of the U.S. Armed Force are eligible for the award, as members of the armed forces of a foreign nation.
Following the attacks on the U.S. on September 11, 2001, the regulations regarding the AAM were further modified to allow awarding the medal to eligible candidates in a combat theater meritorious noncombat achievement and services as part of the Global War on Terror. The AAM ranks 28th in precedence for U.S. Military Medals, preceded by the Joint Service Achievement Medal and followed by the Navy Achievement Medal.