The Air Medal is awarded for single acts of achievement to a member of the U.S. Armed Forces who distinguishes themself with outstanding achievement or by meritorious service while participating in aerial flight.
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Air Medal (Army)
During World War II, the Air Medal was to be awarded for a lesser degree of heroism or achievement than required for the Distinguished Flying Cross. However, many Army Air Force units began to award the Air Medal on a quota basis, e.g., 20 missions equaled one Air Medal or an Air Medal for every enemy aircraft shot down. Some commands carried this to extremes by awarding a DFC for every five Air Medals. By the end of the war, over a million Air Medals were awarded (many of which were, of course, oak leaf clusters). While this might appear extreme, the generous award of the Air Medal provided combat aircrews a visible sign that their devotion and determination were appreciated by the country. The Air Medal helped keep morale up in a force that suffered the highest casualty rate of the war after the Infantry.
Although the Naval Services were authorized to award the Air Medal during World War II, the numbers never approached those received by the Army Air Force amidst the European bombing campaigns. Subsequent to World War II, however, with the increased role of the Navy in joint operations, the use of the Air Medal was subtly redefined. The Air Medal was still awarded for single acts of outstanding achievement which involve superior airmanship but of a lesser degree than would justify an award of a Distinguished Flying Cross. However, during the Korean, Vietnam and Gulf conflicts, awards for meritorious service were made for sustained distinction in the performance of duties involving regular and frequent participation in aerial flight operations. These operations include “strikes” (sorties which deliver ordnance against the enemy; those which land or evacuate personnel in an assault; or, those which involve search and rescue operations which encounter enemy opposition), “flights” (sorties which involve the same kinds of operations as strikes but which do not encounter enemy opposition) or “direct combat support” (sorties which include such activities as reconnaissance, combat air patrol, electronic countermeasures support, psychological warfare, coastal surveillance, etc.). In addition, the Air Medal was awarded for noncombat aerial achievement, such as, to air weather crews who gather major storm data by flying into hurricanes. The Air Force ceased all noncombat awards of the Air Medal with the institution of the Aerial Achievement Medal in 1988 but without a comparable peacetime medal, the other Services still award the Air Medal under circumstances not involving actual combat.