Secretary of the Navy John Chafee authorized the Combat Action Ribbon on February 17, 1969, less than three weeks after being sworn in to replace Paul Ignatius. The award was established to recognize participation in either ground or surface combat by members of the Navy, Marine Corps, and the Coast Guard (when it or its units were under the operation control of the Navy). Although SECNAVINST 1650.1H has an extensive list of operations in which actions would qualify a Servicemember to receive the award, regulations explicitly state the list is not all-inclusive, and in fact the regulations were amended in 1999 to allow it to be awarded for actions after December 7, 1941 (if the qualifying actions had not been recognized with another award or medal).
Broadly speaking, the Combat Action Ribbon is awarded to personnel at or below the rank of Captain (Navy and Coast Guard) or Colonel (Marine Corps) who took active part in ground or surface combat. Neither Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) or rating affect eligibility; rather, the foremost basis for the award is that the Servicemember must have performed their duties satisfactorily while under enemy fire and actively participating in a military engagement. This excludes personnel from receiving the award just for being present in a combat area or even by being wounded during action and receiving a Purple Heart.
As the nature of combat has changed over the years, largely as a result of the types of tactics employed by hostile forces in the Global War on Terror, the Navy now lists specific examples of qualifying actions to help clarify both the spirit and letter of the regulations. For example, direct exposure to the detonation of Improvised Explosive Device is considered active participation in combat, despite the fact that enemy forces might not actually be present at the time. Similarly, personnel serving in Special Operations or carrying out covert operations in which the risk of taking enemy fire is very high and their ability to return fire is limited either by situational contingencies or rules of engagement are eligible for the award. And wear of the badge is also authorized for current Navy personnel who had earned the Combat Infantryman Badge or Combat Medical Badge while previously serving in the U.S. Army.
Complete eligibility guidelines, waivers, and exemptions for the Navy and Marine Corps’ Combat Action Ribbon our detailed in Navy and Marine Corps Awards Manual
, SECNAVINST 1650.1H, specifically in Chapter 8-11. Eligible operations are listed in Appendix E of Chapter 2, Personal Military Decorations.
In 2008, the United States Coast Guard established its own, distinct Combat Action Ribbon, authorized to be awarded retroactively to May 1, 1975, (the earliest date that similar awards such as the Navy Combat Action Ribbon, the Air Force Combat Action Medal, and several U.S. Army Badges may be converted to the USCG Combat Action Ribbon). You can learn more about the USCG’s Combat Action Ribbon here.