One of President Gerald Ford’s last acts was the issuance of Executive Order 11965 establishing the Humanitarian Service Medal (HSM) on January 19, 1977. The award was created to recognize members of the Armed Forces of the United States (including Reserve Components) for their meritorious participation in either a military act or operation of a humanitarian nature, and is authorized to be awarded by the Secretary of Defense or the Secretary of Transportation; this caveat was intended for Coast Guard members who participated in qualifying acts or operations when not operating as part of the United States Navy. This wording was changed to “Secretary of Homeland Security” in Executive Order 13286 to reflect the reorganization of the Coast Guard into the Department of Security.
The original executive order establishing the HSM was just four paragraphs long; the explanation of qualifying actions, operations, and sundry other considerations regarding eligibility and awarding of the HSM take up nearly five pages in Volume 2 of the Department of Defense’s regulations for Campaign Expeditionary, and Service Medals (Number 1348.33, revised in May, 2015).
Among the most obvious clarifications in the DoD regulations is that the HSM may be awarded as an individual or a unit decoration; that it may not be awarded for actions taken during domestic disturbances involving law-enforcement activities, equal-rights demonstrations, or the protection of property; and that it may not be awarded to eligible Servicemember who have received the Armed Forces Service Medal or Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal for the same period of service or duties rendered. Additionally, the DoD instructions indicate that members of the United States Public Health Service are eligible for the award.
In terms of actual qualifying services, regulations specify that they must be of “major significance,” provide immediate relief and relieve human suffering, must have had an impact on the outcome of events, and must have taken place during a specific range of dates that are bound by the period defined as immediate relief.
While the medal is presented only once upon its initial award, Servicemembers may earn the award for multiple eligible acts during qualifying missions. Each additional award is recognized with a bronze service star; a silver service start is worn in place of five bronze service stars.
The HSM may be awarded posthumously, but recommendations for the award must be submitted into the appropriate command channel within two years of the qualifying military act or operation.