Before the Coast Guard Distinguished Service Medal (CGDSM) was authorized by the 81st Congress on August 4, 1949, Coast Guard members who had met its admittedly steep award criteria had been issued the Navy Distinguished Service Medal. Indeed, the language employed in the legislation that became Title 14 § 492 authorizing the Coast Guard version of the medal is almost identical to that used when the Navy medal was established thirty years earlier.
Awarded by the President (but not in the name of Congress, unlike the Medal of Honor), the CGDSM is awarded to any person serving in any capacity in the Coast Guard who distinguishes themselves by exceptionally meritorious service in a duty of great responsibility. Further, this distinguishing meritorious duty must not only be clearly above what is expected of a person at their given rank, but also must contribute materially to the success of a major command or project.
Even a quick reading of the regulations and associated U.S. Code reveals the limited size of the possible pool of recipients; although it is open to people serving in “any capacity,” the caveat of “in a duty of great responsibility” and the requirement that the service contribute the success of a “major command or project” means the CGDSM is almost always awarded high-ranking officers. The Coast Guard’s regulations regarding medals and awards, COMDTINST M1650.25E, put it bluntly: “Generally, the Distinguished Service Medal is awarded to flag officers in principal commands.” There is admittedly nothing that precludes it from being awarded to enlisted personnel, but it would take a great deal of luck for enlisted Guardsmen to find themselves in a position to act in a way that would meet all the requirements.
The CGDSM is awarded by the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. If the Secretary has any doubt at all regarding the level of service involved, the Legion of Merit is awarded instead.