The United States was woefully unprepared in both men and materiel when it declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917. But the “Arsenal of Democracy” shifted into high gear with amazing alacrity, and by war’s end more than four million Americans had served in some capacity with the American Expeditionary Force, half of them overseas.
Those millions of Americans performed countless acts of selfless bravery and courage, but at the time of the war’s end there were only two medals that could be awarded for gallantry: the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross. What’s more, those decorations could be awarded only for acts that involved direct conflict with the enemy. Acts of valor that did not involve combat with the enemy went unrewarded, as did any heroic actions that took place while the country was not in a state of war.
To address this oversight, the Soldier’s Medal was established by an Act of Congress on July 2, 1926 that created Public Law 446, authorizing the President to award the decoration to anyone in the Armed Forces of the United States (or of a friendly foreign nation) who “distinguishes himself by heroism not involving actual conflict with an enemy.” Members of the Reserve who perform such an act while not on duty status are also eligible.
The Army Regulations provide significant guidance on just what acts qualify for the award. The act requires the same level of heroism necessary for the awarding of the Distinguished Flying Cross, i.e., for actions above and beyond the call of duty that are “so exceptional and outstanding as to clearly set the individual apart from his or her comrades or from other persons in similar circumstances.”
In 1943, the regulations regarding the Soldier’s Medal were changed so that the actions involved the voluntary risk of life under conditions not involving conflict with an armed enemy. At the same time, however, the decoration would not be awarded solely based on having saved a life.
When Congress passed the legislation authorizing the President to issue this award, it also included a $2 per month bonus, roughly ten percent of the average Soldier’s monthly pay at the time. This automatic bonus has since been eliminated, but a tiny subset of Soldier's Medal recipients may still be eligible for a ten percent increase in retired pay. The caveat is that the non-combat valor was considered equivalent to that required for the award of the Distinguished Service Cross, which would raise the question of why anyone who met this condition would not also have been awarded that particular decoration the bonus therefore linked to it.