For over four decades after its creation, the almost singular purpose of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, was to serve as a bulwark against a much-hypothesized westward attack by the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies into the heart of Europe. In reality, the only military actions taken by NATO forces during that time were large-scale military exercises; it was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact that NATO actually began to carry out military missions with a variety of objectives, from peacekeeping and humanitarian relief to aerial reconnaissance (Operation Eagle Assist) and maritime security against the transportation of terrorists, hazardous materials, and Weapons of Mass Destruction.
The NATO Medal is awarded by the Secretary General of NATO to members of the Armed Forces of the United States, military and civilian, for participation in designated NATO operations. It carries a qualifying-service period of 30 days during any single tour of duty, which typically last 180 days; only one award may be given during a single qualifying period. The 30 days do not have to be continuous, and all service-period requirements are waived when then award is made posthumously.
Servicemembers may wear NATO Medals for operations and missions that have been approved by the Secretary of Defense. It is the responsibility for potential recipients to request their medals within two years of leaving the area where the approved operations took place. The most recent NATO Operation for which a Medal was struck which also received Secretary of Defense approval for acceptance and wear, Operation Ocean Shield, officially ended on November 24, 2016.