Stick a fork in me
-- I'm done. With law school that is. Next stop: the dreaded BarBri study course, and the even more hideous California bar exam.
The flap over medals and ribbons

I needed a break from studying, so I decided to write over the brewing brouhaha over Sen. John Kerry's medals -- and whether there's any salient difference between medals and ribbons for the purposes of understanding his actions in 1971. The answer -- I think this much ado about nothing. Here's why:

1. What is a ribbon? Quite literally, a "ribbon" is the piece of fabric which suspends a military medal from the fastening device. This depiction of the Silver Star shows what the complete set looks like. Every medal has a ribbon which accompanies it. For the most part, they all conform to the style of the Silver Star, with the notable exception of the Congressional Medal of Honor, which is worn around the neck. The Army's regulation on the subject has this to say:
The term "awards" is an all-inclusive term covering any decoration, medal, badge, ribbon, or appurtenance bestowed on an individual or unit. The term "awards" is used throughout this chapter. The term "ribbon" is an all-inclusive term covering that portion of the suspension ribbon of a service medal or decoration that is worn instead of the service medal or decoration. The ribbon is made in the form of a ribbon bar, 1 3/8 inches long by 3/8 inches wide. The term "ribbon" is used throughout this chapter, and it includes service and training ribbons.
The wearing of ribbons in lieu of medals evolved over time to facilitate the wearing of decorations into combat by soldiers who didn't want their medals to be clanking around on the battlefield. Today, American soldiers do not wear their decorations into battle -- they fight in battle dress uniforms with sewn-on patches for rank, unit, and other designations.

2. What's the difference between a medal and a ribbon? Generally, ribbons are worn in lieu of medals on the military uniform. Medals are usually worn in formal situations, such as black-tie events. On certain uniforms, such as the Army mess dress uniform, miniature medals are actually worn. However, on the standard dress uniform (roughly analogous to a business suit), you will see military personnel wearing their ribbons on a daily basis. Look at any picture of generals testifying before Congress -- they'll be wearing their ribbons. The ribbon itself is a rectangular version of the ribbon that is used to suspend the medal in full medal form (see this chart for a picture of what ribbons look like). Ribbons are worn together in rows, using a ribbon holding device that pins to the uniform. Ribbons are worn in order of precedence, i.e. Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, etc.

3. Do all medals have ribbons, and do all ribbons have medals? No. Some awards, like the Army's Overseas Service Ribbon, do not have a medal. These are typically less important awards or service awards. Generally, ribbons without medals are so designated in their title, e.g. the difference between National Defense Service Medal vs. Overseas Service Ribbon. All medals do have a ribbon which accompanies them, but all ribbons do not have medals.

4. Are medals unique? The medals that you have actually pinned on you have sentimental value, and some medals (like the Medal of Honor) cannot be purchased. But generally speaking, medals and ribbons are something you can get at the PX or from a military supply store. Ribbons fray over time, and they have to be replaced. Also, some soldiers opt for a "stay brite" version of medals that don't need polishing, and these can only be purchased at the PX. It is correct to say that store-bought medals are "my medals" even though they're not the ones originally given. Once you're awarded a medal, it's yours. Of course, a protest might have more symbolic meaning if it consists of throwing one's own original medals, but given the ease with which replacements are procured, I think this is an unimportant difference.

So, to sum up: Does it matter that John Kerry threw ribbons instead of medals? Not really -- they're functionally interchangeable. Both represent the decoration he received. Does it matter that he threw someone else's decorations, or store-bought decorations? Slightly, although this is mostly a sentimental issue. Original medals are sometimes engraved with the recipient's name, and they have personal value to some people. (I, for one, have little attachment to my original medals, but that's probably because they're peacetime awards.) Do military personnel use the terms "ribbons", "medals", and "awards" interchangeably? Yes -- each word has a specific definition, but I've heard them used interchangeably.

And if you want a humorous version of this -- see this mock PowerPoint briefing on John Kerry's military record over at Slate. Very funny.