SVI Blog: The Meaning of Decorations


The Meaning of Decorations

When the veteran speaks of decorations, many feelings may surface. And when, on Memorial Day or Veterans Day, we see veterans don their uniforms for parades, the glittering, attractive face of the decoration is seen but the obverse lies dark against the veteran’s chest. The metaphorical meanings of that darkness may reach far deeper. 

Generally speaking, the higher the decoration, the greater the damage inflicted on the enemy, the worse the loss of life among the veteran’s buddies and/or the more desperate the danger faced in order to receive it. Civilians often glorify decorations by calling the recipient a hero. Most veterans I have worked with are humble, unassuming people who believe there are no such things as heroes. They are often quick to point out there are common men and women who do heroic things. They often list their battle buddies among these but may be profoundly uncomfortable when the term is applied to them personally.

Some will respond “I got a medal for this? I was just doing my job.” Others will tell you that they have seen their brothers and sisters do much more than they and yet receive no recognition. Still others will feel discomfort at being singled out for bravery and only accept or wear the decoration a gesture to their squad or unit: a team which they remember and honor as far greater than they.

The Purple Heart, a medal awarded for being wounded in combat, can be a very hard decoration to receive when you know that others received more grievous wounds or were killed in combat. As a retired Marine Gunnery Sergeant told me, there is only a hairline’s difference between being wounded and being killed. Survivor guilt may express itself in reluctance to seek benefits or disability ratings because of simply being alive to do so while the remains of your best friend remain unfound on some far-away battlefield or her child is growing up without a mother.

Each ribbon brings forth memories of an event but, more importantly, it brings forth memories of relationships past and of buddies maimed or no longer living. As I have tried to point out elsewhere, part of effective treatment for PTSD and related trauma of veterans requires giving them every opportunity to memorialize their dead brothers and sisters. Asking them who they think of when speaking of their decorations can go a long way in the healing process.

Andrew S. Berry Ph.D., Psy.D.,
ABPP Board Certified in Clinical Psychology and Counseling Psychology