The Legion of Merit is sixth in the order of precedence of U.S. Military awards and is worn after the Defense Superior Service Medal and before the Distinguished Flying Cross. In contemporary use in the U.S. Armed Forces, the Legion of Merit is typically awarded to Army, Marine Corps, and Air Force general officers and colonels, and Navy and Coast Guard flag officers and captains occupying command or very senior staff positions in their respective services. It may also be awarded to officers of lesser rank and to very senior enlisted personnel, but these instances are less frequent and circumstances vary by branch of service. As such, the medal can be considered as "points" in some enlisted promotion systems, such as the Air Force, where it is counted as seven points (out of a possible 25 points for decorations). However, since the rare enlisted recipients are typically at the pinnacle of the enlisted pay grades (i.e., E-9), the utility of such points is marginal to nil.
The degrees of Chief Commander, Commander, Officer, and Legionnaire are awarded only to members of armed forces of foreign nations under the criteria outlined in Army Regulation 672-7 and is based on the relative rank or position of the recipient as follows:
Chief Commander: Head of state or government. However this degree was awarded by President Roosevelt to some Allied World War II theater commanders usually for joint amphibious landings or invasions. (The President had this power under Executive Order 9260 of October 29, 1942 paragraph 3b.)
Commander: Equivalent of a U.S. military chief of staff or higher position, but not to a head of state.
Officer: General or flag officer below the equivalent of a U.S. military chief of staff; colonel or equivalent rank for service in assignments equivalent to those normally held by a general or flag officer in U.S. military service; or military attachés.
Legionnaire: All recipients not included above.
When the Legion of Merit is awarded to members of the uniformed services of the United States it is awarded without reference to degree. The criteria are "for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services and achievements"; additional awards of the Legion of Merit are denoted by oak leaf clusters (in the Army and Air Force), and by 5⁄16 inch stars (in the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard). The sea services (i.e., the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard) may also authorize the Combat "V" for wear on the Legion of Merit, while the Army and Air Force do not authorize the "V" device.
The performance must have been such as to merit recognition of key individuals for service rendered in a clearly exceptional manner.
Performance of duties normal to the grade, branch, specialty or assignment, and experience of an individual is not an adequate basis for this award.
For service not related to actual war the term "key individual" applies to a narrower range of positions than in time of war and requires evidence of significant achievement.
In peacetime, service should be in the nature of a special requirement or of an extremely difficult duty performed in an unprecedented and clearly exceptional manner.
However, justification of the award may accrue by virtue of exceptionally meritorious service in a succession of important positions.
The degrees and the design of the decoration were clearly influenced by the French Legion of Honor (Légion d'honneur).
Although recommendations for creation of a Meritorious Service Medal were initiated as early as September 1937, no formal action was taken toward approval.
In a letter to the Quartermaster General (QMG) dated December 24, 1941, the Adjutant General formally requested action be initiated to create a Meritorious Service Medal and provide designs in the event the decoration was established. Proposed designs prepared by Bailey, Banks and Biddle and the Office of the Quartermaster General were provided to Assistant Chief of Staff (G1) (Colonel Heard) by the QMG on January 5, 1942.
The Assistant Chief of Staff (G1) (BG Hilldring), in a response to the QMG on April 3, 1942, indicated the Secretary of War approved the design recommended by the QMG. The design of the Legion of Merit (change of name) would be ready for issue immediately after legislation authorizing it was enacted into law. (A separate Meritorius Service Medal was established in 1969.)
An Act of Congress (Public Law 671—77th Congress, Chapter 508, 2d Session) on July 20, 1942, established the Legion of Merit and provided that the medal "shall have suitable appurtenances and devices and not more than four degrees, and which the President, under such rules and regulations as he shall prescribe, may award to
(a) personnel of the Armed Forces of the United States and of the Government of the Commonwealth Philippines and
(b) personnel of the armed forces of friendly foreign nations who, since the proclamation of an emergency by the President on 1939-09-08, shall have distinguished themselves by exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services."
The medal was announced in War Department Bulletin No. 40, dated August 5, 1942. Executive Order 9260, dated October 29, 1942, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, established the rules for the Legion of Merit and required the President's approval for the award. However, in 1943, at the request of General George C. Marshall, approval authority for U.S. personnel was delegated to the War Department.
The reverse of the medal has the motto taken from the Great Seal of the United States, "ANNUIT COEPTIS" ("He [God] Has Favored Our Undertakings") and the date "MDCCLXXXII" (1782) which is the date of America's first decoration, the Badge of Military Merit, now known as the Purple Heart. The ribbon design also follows the pattern of the Purple Heart ribbon.
The Chief Commander Degree of the Legion of Merit Medal is, on a wreath of green laurel joined at the bottom by a gold bow-knot (rosette), a domed five-pointed white star bordered crimson, points reversed with v-shaped extremities tipped with a gold ball. In the center, a blue disk encircled by gold clouds, with 13 white stars arranged in the pattern that appears on the Great Seal of the United States. Between each point, within the wreath are crossed arrows pointing outwards. The overall width is 215⁄16 inches (75 mm). The words "UNITED STATES OF AMERICA" are engraved in the center of the reverse. A miniature of the decoration in gold on a horizontal gold bar is worn on the service ribbon.
The Commander Degree of the Legion of Merit Medal is, on a wreath of green laurel joined at the bottom by a gold bow-knot (rosette), a five-pointed white star bordered crimson, points reversed with v-shaped extremities tipped with a gold ball. In the center, a blue disk encircled by gold clouds, with 13 white stars arranged in the pattern that appears on the Great Seal of the United States. Between each star point, within the wreath, are crossed arrows pointing outwards. The overall width is 21⁄4 inches (57 mm). A gold laurel wreath in the v-shaped angle at the top connects an oval suspension ring to the neck ribbon that is 115⁄16 inches (49 mm) in width. The reverse of the five-pointed star is enameled in white, and the border is crimson. In the center, a disk for engraving the name of the recipient surrounded by the words "ANNUIT COEPTIS MDCCLXXXII." An outer scroll contains the words "UNITED STATES OF AMERICA." A miniature of the decoration in silver on a horizontal silver bar is worn on the service ribbon.
The neck ribbon for the degree of Commander is 115⁄16 inches (49 mm) wide and consists of the following stripes: 1⁄16 inch (1.6 mm) white 67101; center 113⁄16 inches (46 mm) crimson and 1⁄16 inch (1.6 mm) white.
The Officer Degree of the Legion of Merit Medal is similar to the degree of Commander except the overall width is 17⁄8 inches (48 mm) and the pendant has a suspension ring instead of the wreath for attaching the ribbon. A gold replica of the medal, 3⁄4 inch (19 mm) wide, is centered on the suspension ribbon.
The Legionnaire Degree of the Legion of Merit Medal and the Legion of Merit Medal issued to U.S. personnel is the same as the degree of Officer, except the suspension ribbon does not have the medal replica.
The ribbon for all of the decorations is 13⁄8 inches (35 mm) wide and consists of the following stripes: 1⁄16 inch (1.6 mm) white; center 11⁄4 inches (32 mm) crimson; and 1⁄16 inch (1.6 mm) white. The reverse of all of the medals has the motto taken from the Great Seal of the United States "ANNUIT COEPTIS" (He (God) Has Favored Our Undertakings) and the date "MDCCLXXXII" (1782), which is the date of America's first decoration, the Badge of Military Merit, now known as the Purple Heart. The ribbon design also follows the pattern of the Purple Heart ribbon.