President Abraham Lincoln established The Medal of Honor in December 1861 for enlisted men of the Navy and Marine Corps. In 1862 it was further authorized for enlisted men and officers of all services.
The Medal of Honor is the highest military decoration that can be awarded any man or woman serving in the United States Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, or Coast Guard.
The Medal of Honor is often erroneously called, "The Congressional Medal of Honor" due to the wording of the (latter) authorizing U.S. Code, Title 10, Subtitle B, Part II, Chapter 357, Section 3741:
"The President may award, and present in the name of Congress, a medal of honor of appropriate design, with ribbons and appurtenances, to a person who while a member of the Army, distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty." [Applies equally to members of all the Armed Forces]
The Medal, itself, appended on a blue ribbon embellished with 13 white stars at the front, is worn around the neck on formal occasions. At other times, the medal ribbon is worn above all other ribbons, as its place of honor in the "order of precedence".
The actual number of Medals of Honor awarded seems to vary with the source of this information. According to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society (an organization chartered by Congress - thus its name) there have been 3,461 Medals of Honor awarded. According to their website, there are 111 living recipients of this highest award; 51 of the living Recipients earned their Medals more than fifty years ago, 36 while serving in WW II and 15 in Korea.
It is a violation of law for a non-recipient of the Medal of Honor to wear it. It is also a violation to sell and/or manufacture a Medal of Honor. (It is patented and may only be manufactured by authorized sources, and it is awarded, never sold.) Fines up to $100,000 and imprisonment for up to a year may punish violators. These strong measures became necessary in order to preserve the honor of this award.
The F.B.I. have been involved in tracking down instances of manufacturing and selling counterfeit medals, and were key to vigorously prosecuting the criminals involved.
It is not, however, a punishable offense merely to claim to have been awarded any medal for valor, unless the claim is made in order to receive the benefits that accrue to, for instance, Medal of Honor recipients.
Sadly, there are many more imposters going around claiming to be Medal of Honor recipients than there are living genuine Medal of Honor winners. The phony heroes include a former sitting judge in Illinois who once kept two imitation Medals of Honor displayed on his office wall.
There are two similar-sounding United States non-military medals, neither of which should be confused with the military Medal of Honor:
1. The Congressional Gold Medal (often called the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor) The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest award that may be bestowed by the Legislative Branch of the United States government. The decoration is awarded to any individual who performs an outstanding deed or act of service to the security, prosperity, and national interest of the United States of America.
Each Congressional Gold Medal is minted to specifically commemorate the person and achievement for which the medal is awarded, and so will be different in appearance from all other such medals. It is considered more like a trophy, not to be worn on ones person.
In 1999, Rosa Parks was honored with a Congressional Gold Medal. In 2000, a Congressional Gold Medal was presented to the Navajo Code Talkers of WW II.
2. The Congressional Space Medal of Honor The Congressional Space Medal of Honor was authorized by the United States Congress in 1969 to recognize "any astronaut who in the performance of his duties has distinguished himself by exceptionally meritorious efforts and contributions to the welfare of the Nation and mankind."
The Congressional Space Medal of Honor is awarded by the President on recommendation from the NASA Administrator. So far, 28 astronauts have been honored with this medal. Military astronauts are allowed to wear this medal on their uniforms; it ranks below all military awards and medals in the "order of precedence".
The last action for which the Medal of Honor was awarded was made posthumously to Sergeant First Class Paul R. Smith, U. S. Army, for his heroism in Iraq on April 4, 2003.