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What is the US highest military rank?

5 Things to Know About Military Ranks

Regardless of how much time a service member has spent in the military or which branch they’ve served in, each member of the military has a title known as their “rank.” This ranking system can be complicated, but that rank holds a lot of information, including how many people they oversee.

Here are five things you need to know about military ranks.

Military academy graduates bypass ranks

When someone first enlists in the military, they enter the military pay scale at the enlisted level. This means that they are placed on the enlisted pay scale with a designation between an E-1 through an E-9, with each level corresponding to a rank in their respective branch. However, those who enter the military from a military academy, such as West Point or the Naval Academy, bypass the enlisted scale and enter the officer scale as a second lieutenant (within the Army, Marine Corps, Air Force and Space Force) or an ensign (within the Navy and Coast Guard) upon the completion of their studies.

Photo credit U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Dennis Hoffman

The U.S. Air Force Academy Class of 2020 graduated 86 Space Force Cadets commissioned into the U.S. Space Force, the newest branch of the military. These freshly minted service members entered the force as lieutenants.

Each branch has its own ranking system

Although the branches overlap in some respects, they do not share a ranking system. For example, admiral and ensign are exclusive ranks to the Navy and the Coast Guard. Similarly, major, colonel and general are all exclusive to the Army, Marines and Air Force. However, captain is a rank in all the military branches, but not the same level across branches. With that said, the Navy and the Coast Guard have near-identical ranking systems to one another, as do the Army, Marines, Air Force and Space Force, with much of the differences between branches in the enlisted ranks.

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Rank is directly related to income

Much like civilians, service members see income increases when they increase rank. If you are promoted from manager to director of an organization, you can expect a raise in your paycheck, and that’s how military ranks work as well. If a captain in the Army is promoted to major, they will have an increase in salary – as well as more responsibility within their job description.

The higher one’s rank, the more people they lead

Col. John Lesho gets his new rank pinned on by his family during a change of command ceremony in 2020. It is a common tradition for family and friends to pin a service member’s new rank on them during such events. | Photo credit DVIDS/Jamal D. Sutter

This is another similarity to civilian workforce. In the military, the higher your rank, the larger the team you lead. For instance, a sergeant in the Army typically leads a team a four, while a captain leads a company of three to five platoons, about 60-200 soldiers, total. However, while most civilian jobs require managers to lead their employees in the conference room, these higher-ranking military leaders are leading their units into the battlefield.

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The highest ranks are reserved for wartime

So, what is the highest rank someone can hold in the military? The answer is two-fold. One, it depends on the branch. For the Army and Air Force, a five-star general is the highest (the Marines don’t have a five-star position), and for the Navy and Coast Guard, the highest is a five-star fleet admiral. All lead hundreds of thousands of service members. Two, these prestigious ranks are reserved only for wartime, so not everyone gets the opportunity to reach them.

These five-star ranks were established in 1944 when congress passed Public Law 482. This allowed U.S. military leaders to have equal ranks to that of their Allied Powers counterparts during World War II. The Army then promoted Generals George C. Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Henry H. “Hap” Arnold. The Navy promoted Admirals William D. Leahy, Ernest J. King, Chester Nimitz and William F Halsey. Then when the Air Force became its own branch in 1947, General Arnold became the only five-star member of the branch. Finally, in 1950, Omar N. Bradley became the fifth and final Army five-star general.

However, the current, highest-ranking member of the U.S. Armed Forces is a six-star general – and is none other than America’s first president, George Washington. On July 4, 1976, a joint resolution was passed to posthumously promote Washington to the title of “General of the Armies of the United States,” effectively ensuring that no other member of the military can ever outrank him.

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  • 7 Facts About American Presidents Who Served in the Military Of the 46 U.S. presidents in American history, 31 of them have served in the military in some capacity. From George Washington to George H.W. Bush, here are seven facts about American presidents who served in the U.S. military.
  • Do You Know These 6 Important Military Medals of America? There are hundreds of military awards and decorations – each with their own significance, criteria and history – across all of the different branches of the U.S. military. Here are six important medals of America that you can easily spot with a quick glance.


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military rank insignias

military rank insignias
Related Topics: admiral field army . (Show more)

general, title and rank of a senior army officer, usually one who commands units larger than a regiment or its equivalent or units consisting of more than one arm of the service. Frequently, however, a general is a staff officer who does not command troops but who plans their operations in the field.

General, lieutenant general, and major general are the first, second, and third grades of general officers in many armies. The United States Army, Air Force, and Marines have a fourth general officer grade, brigadier general (brigadier in the British Army). The highest U.S. Army rank, five-star general of the army, was created in 1944 and was conferred upon Henry Harley (“Hap”) Arnold, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, and George C. Marshall in that year and upon Omar N. Bradley in 1950. The four-star rank of general of the army of the United States was established for Ulysses S. Grant in 1866 and was bestowed later upon William T. Sherman and Philip Sheridan; the unique four-star rank of general of the armies of the United States, created in 1799 for George Washington but never held by him, was conferred upon John J. Pershing in 1919.

This article was most recently revised and updated by Michael Ray.

Top 10 Highest-Ranking U.S. Military Medals

Any medal bestowed upon a service member by the U.S. military is a great honor and an indication of their commitment to their country. However, not all military medals are created equal. There is a hierarchy, with the medals at the top representing the greatest of all honors that any military member can receive.

But what are the top 10 military medals? To get up to speed on each one, consider a service member’s top military medals, which can be honored.

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1. Medal of Honor

There is no higher decoration in the United States military than the Congressional Medal of Honor. This medal has been handed out since the days of the Civil War to military members who “distinguish themselves through conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life and above and beyond the call of duty,” according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

Of the 40 million men and women who have served in the U.S. military since the Civil War, only 3,525 have received one of the following three versions of the Medal of Honor.

army medal of honorArmy Medal of Honor

Established in 1862, the Army Medal of Honor is the second oldest version of this decoration. The first-ever recipient was Private Jacob Parrott, an 18-year-old member of the 33 rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War who was captured following a raid on a confederate train.

Navy/Marine Corps/Coast Guard Medal of Honornavy marines air force medal of honor

The Navy Medal of Honor was the first Medal of Honor, established in 1861 at the onset of the Civil War. Of the only 749 medals bestowed since then, 449 have been awarded to members of the U.S. Navy, 299 have been awarded to U.S. Marines, and just one has been awarded to a member of the U.S. Coast Guard.

air force medal of honorAir Force Medal of Honor

The Air Force Medal of Honor is far newer than its Army and Navy counterparts — it was established in 1965. Most of the 19 handed out have been awarded to Air Force members who served in the Vietnam War.

2. Crosses

The Cross is awarded to those who display “extraordinary heroism” amid military operations that involve either a foreign force that opposes the United States of America or in the service of a friendly foreign force “against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party.”

This second-highest of the top 10 military medals was first established by President Woodrow Wilson in 1918, the final year of World War I. The Cross also comes in three different versions.

Army Distinguished Service Cross (DSC)army distinguished service cross dsc

The first Cross medal was established for the United States Army. Not only was it used to honor those who served in World War I, but retroactively given to those who displayed extraordinary heroism in service of the United States of America previous to World War I.

navy crossNavy Cross

The Navy Cross was established in February 1919. One of the most notable recipients is Lenah Higbee, the Chief Nurse of the U.S. Navy during World War I and the Spanish Flu epidemic. Higbee was one of the first women to join the Navy Nurse Corps.

Air Force Crossair force cross

Established in 1965, the Air Force Cross was first created to honor those who served in the Vietnam War. However, three men who served in the U.S. Air Force during World War II earned it, and Major Rudolf Anderson, Jr., who was killed during a reconnaissance mission that began the Cuban Missile Crisis.

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3. Distinguished Service Medals

The Distinguished Service Medal is the third of the top 10 military medals. It’s bestowed upon those who “distinguished themselves by exceptionally meritorious service to the government in a duty of great responsibility, in combat or otherwise.”

These medals were first established in 1918 for the U.S. Army. There are now four different versions, each correlating to the specific military branch in which the recipient has served.

army distinguished service medal dsmArmy

This was the first of all Distinguished Service Medals, first awarded on January 12, 1918. A few members of the Allied Armies during World War I, including commanding officers from France, Canada, Australia, Britain, Italy, Belgium, and Serbia, received this award.

navy marines distinguished service medal dsmNavy/Marines

Created in 1919, the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, which is also bestowed upon members of the U.S. Marines, once ranked higher in the top 10 military medals than the Navy Cross. In August of 1942, however, the rankings were reversed.

coast guard distinguished service medalCoast Guard

The Coast Guard Distinguished Service Medal was established in August 1949. Before that, members of the U.S. Coast Guard who met the criteria for the award were given the U.S. Navy Distinguished Service Medal.

air force distinguished service medal dsmAir Force

Before July 1960, the U.S. Army Distinguished Service Medal was also awarded to members of the U.S. Air Force. However, Congress eventually established an award unique to the Air Force. One of the most notable recipients is Colonel Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, who earned the medal twice.

4. Silver Star

silver star

The Silver Star is the first of the top 10 military medals awarded to all military branches. It is awarded to anyone who “is cited for gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States,” either while in military operations which involve conflict with an opposing foreign force or while in service of friendly foreign forces “against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party.”

5. Defense Superior Service Medal (DSSM)

defense superior service medal dssm

President Gerald Ford established the Defense Superior Service Medal in 1976 to honor officers of the United States military who “perform exceptionally with the Office of the Secretary of Defense, The Joint Chiefs of Staff, special or outstanding command in a defense agency or any other joint activity designated by the secretary.”

This award is awarded universally across all military branches and is most frequently bestowed upon flag officers, generals, and captains.

6. Legion of Merit Medal (LOM)

legion of merit medal lom

Established in 1942 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Legion of Merit Medal is awarded to military members and certain foreign allies for “exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services and achievements.” The award comes in four degrees: Chief Commander, Commander, Officer, and Legionnaire.

7. Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC)

Distinguished Flying Cross

The DFC is the only one of the top military medals that exclusively involves aerial flight. It is awarded to members of the military but also civilians and foreign allies. The award requires that the recipient display “heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.”

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This award doesn’t necessarily involve combat. It has been awarded to various astronauts who took part in groundbreaking missions and to innovators in the field of aeronautics.

8. Non-Conflict Heroism Medals

There are a few different non-combat medals awarded for heroism. Although these top military medals don’t require the recipient to have engaged directly in an active conflict, they are awarded only to those who have risked their own lives in the act of heroism.

soldierSoldier’s Medal (SM)

Awarded to a member of the U.S. military or to a foreign ally who “distinguished himself or herself by heroism not involving conflict with an enemy,” this decoration was first established in 1926.

navy marine corps medalNavy/Marine Corps Medal

This non-conflict heroism medal started in August of 1942. One of the most notable recipients of the award is President John F. Kennedy, who received it for rescuing members of the crew of Motor Torpedo Boat PT-109 during World War II.

airmanAirman’s Medal

Taking the place of the Soldier’s Medal for members of the U.S. Air Force in July 1960, the Airman’s Medal is awarded to those who faced danger in the line of duty.

coast guard medalCoast Guard Medal

The Coast Guard Medal was established in 1949 but not awarded until 1958. Individuals who performed heroic acts at great personal risk can earn this medal.

9. Bronze Star Medal (BSM)

bronze star

The Bronze Star Medal was established in 1944. It honors individuals similar to the Silver Star, even having nearly identical criteria. The only difference is that the standard of heroism for the Bronze Star is slightly less than that for the Silver Star.

10. Purple Heart Medal (PH)

purple heart

If asked, “What are the top 10 military medals?” they would likely mention the Purple Heart. This award’s history extends back further than any other, beginning as the Badge of Military Merit in the earliest days of the American military.

The Purple Heart is awarded to individuals wounded or killed “as result of an act of any opposing armed force, as a result of an international terrorist attack or as a result of military operations while serving as part of a peacekeeping force.”

Honoring Our Service Members

These are the highest decorations in the American military, but many more are awarded to military members and others who have risked their safety in service of our country. Learning about them can give you a better perspective on the courage and heroism of these brave men and women and a greater respect for our military.

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