Aaron Alexis, the Navy veteran and IT contractor who died after killing 12 people and wounding three others in a shooting rampage on Monday at Washington's Navy Yard facility, has been described by some media outlets as a decorated sailor. And that's technically accurate: During his service in the Navy, from 2008 until 2011, Alexis received two medals, which have been cited widely in news reports -- the National Defense Service Medal and the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal. These "decorations [are] said to be given for relatively minor distinctions," an MSNBC report states.
So what exactly are those distinctions? Here's a quick breakdown:
National Defense Service Medal: The medal is given to all active-duty soldiers and sailors, including members of the Coast Guard, who have served since Sept. 11, 2001. It was established in 1953 by President Dwight Eisenhower to indicate "military service during a time of war or conflict regardless of the service member's station of duty." It was previously given to all active-duty troops serving at any point between 1950 and 1954 (for the Korean War), 1961 and 1974 (for the Vietnam War), and 1990 to 1995 (for the first Gulf War). In May 2002 the Pentagon began awarding the medal to all servicemembers for an open-ended term.
Global War on Terrorism Service Medal: The medal was established in 2003 to recognize "individuals who either directly or indirectly" supported operations relating to the war on terror for at least 60 days at any point in their service, starting on Sept. 11, 2001, and extending indefinitely. A military factsheet about the medal notes that non-deployed troops are eligible for the decorations for actions including "maintaining/loading weapons systems for combat missions, securing installations against terrorism, augmenting command posts or crisis action teams and processing personnel for deployment in support of the Global War on Terrorism."
The medals, in other words, are decorations -- but they're not the military's most prestigious distinctions. Hence why the New York Times carefully described the medals as "two standard military honors" -- and the BBC opted for "routine."
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