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How the U.S. Army Works

Life After the Army

Medals and Decorations

U.S. Army soldiers can be awarded six different types of individual awards: decorations, good conduct medals, service medals, service ribbons, badges and tabs, and certificates and letters. The highest award for valor that a soldier can recieve during peacetime is the Soldiers Medal. During wartime, the Medal of Honor (often called the Congressional Medal of Honor because the President awards the medal on behalf of Congress) is the highest honor a soldier can receive. More than 3,000 Medals of Honor have been awarded since 1861.

The U.S. Army Medal of Honor
Photo courtesy U.S. Army
The U.S. Army Medal of Honor bears a profile of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and war.

Soldiers typically leave the Army through a discharge. The type of discharge received depends on the circumstances surrounding his departure from the Army and his conduct. Some veterans' benefits depend on the type of discharge as well. Soldiers may voluntarily leave the Army when their term of enlistment has ended, although they may also sign a contract for another term of service. If a soldier is disabled or suffers a serious family hardship (for example, the soldier is needed to care for a sick family member), he may also be discharged voluntarily. A soldier who completes his term of service and receives a good or better rating on his service from the discharge review board will receive an honorable discharge.

Soldiers can also receive a general discharge (under honorable conditions). This type of discharge is considered less desirable than an honorable discharge. It is for soldiers who may have performed well but did not finish their term of service for a reason other than a disability. Soldiers with minor disciplinary problems may also receive this type of discharge.

An other than honorable discharge is given to soldiers with more serious misconduct. It's not as bad as a court-martial, but an OTH discharge is not a good way to leave the military. Finally, a soldiers can receive a dishonorable or bad conduct discharge. These are involuntary discharges resulting from a court-martial, a military trial held when someone is accused of violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

When a soldier enlists, he signs a contract for a certain period of active duty -- usually two, four or six years. However, everyone who joins the army signs on for an eight-year obligation. When the active duty tour has finished, the soldier may finish out the remaining time in the reserves or as an Individual Ready Reservist (IRR). IRRs do not train or drill regularly, but they may be called to active duty at any time until their eight-year term has ended. At the end of eight years, soldiers can sign on for an additional eight-year term of service. To retire from the Army, a soldier must have served for 20 years. Some retired soldiers can be recalled to active duty, especially if they are under age 60 and it's been less than five years since they retired.

Soldiers have access to an Army Career and Alumni Program Center on each base. ACAP has career counselors that can help soldiers make the move into the civilian world when they are nearing the end of their term of service. There are also programs that allow soldiers to acquire professional training certificates, become teachers or even secure a guaranteed job with certain companies when they enlist.

The Army also offers a number of benefits to veterans, including a retirement savings plan similar to a 401(k) plan. Also, retiring soldiers (those with at least 20 years of service) can receive half of their base pay (based on an average of their last three years of base pay) for the rest of their lives. Reservists and National Guard members use a more complicated formula based on points earned for active service to calculate eligibility for retirement pay.

Army veterans and their families may be eligible for a host of benefits when they leave the army. The exact benefits vary greatly from one situation to another, depending on the nature of discharge, whether the soldier was injured or killed while in the army, how long she served for and the highest rank achieved. Examples of veterans' benefits include funding for education through the GI Bill, housing loans, life insurance, career training, health insurance and prescription drug coverage and money for surviving family members. You can learn more at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Web site.

We'll look at the history of the U.S. Army in the next section.