Following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the formal end of combat operations in Iraq, the Defense Department is preparing to truly transition the military out of a wartime posture. Which is to say, the National Defense Service Medal is going back into retirement on Dec. 31.
The award ― affectionately known as the “pizza stain,” which all troops serving since 9/11 have been able to pin on their uniforms after initial training ― won’t be awarded for the foreseeable future.
“Termination is based on the United States no longer conducting large-scale combat operations in designated geographic locations as a result of the terrorist attacks on the United States that occurred September 11, 2001,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin wrote in a memo signed Aug. 30.
Thus brings to a close the fourth conflict for which troops could earn the National Defense Service Medal. It previously was activated for five years during the first Gulf War, 13 years for Vietnam and four years for the Korean War.
The announcement comes a month after the department scaled back eligibility for the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, which will be limited to deployments to Syria going forward.
Similarly, the Inherent Resolve Campaign Medal ― awarded for the defeat-ISIS mission ― has been restricted to Syria, its airspace and 12 nautical miles out to sea.
Troops deploying to Iraq for train-advise-assist missions will instead receive the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal.
It’s not that the U.S. is no longer involved in counterterrorism or any potential combat operations, according to the Pentagon, but that those operations are on such a small scale they don’t rate the medal.
Still, troops continue to deploy throughout the world, including to ostensible war zones.
Since March, roughly 20,000 American troops have been mobilized to central and Eastern Europe in support of NATO, either training local forces or teaming up with Ukrainian troops outside the country to get them up to speed on U.S. weapons sent over for their fight against Russia.
It’s possible that the mission could become a named operation that then might warrant a specific medal, but Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, told Military Times in August that there were no announcements to be made.
What the end of National Defense Service Medal essentially means is that while troops will earn awards for deploying abroad in support of myriad missions, they won’t get a wartime award just for completing training.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.
Davis Winkie is a senior reporter covering the Army. He focuses on investigations, personnel concerns and military justice. Davis, also a Guard veteran, was a finalist in the 2023 Livingston Awards for his work with The Texas Tribune investigating the National Guard's border missions. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill.