The Lore of the Corps: Good Conduct Medal awarded to millions

By Keith A. Milks
Special to the Times

When wearing medals or ribbons, the only one that conclusively marks an officer as a Marine who has risen from the enlisted ranks — a “Mustang” — is the dark red and blue stripes of the Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal.

As the sole enlisted-only award, the Good Conduct Medal is one of the oldest decorations in the Marine Corps awards system.

Known in some enlisted circles as the “Good Cookie,” the Good Conduct Medal has been around since 1896. It was designed by Maj. Gen. Charles Heywood, the ninth commandant of the Marine Corps, and formally established when Secretary of the Navy H.A. Herbert signed Navy Department Special Order No. 49 on July 20, 1896.

The first recipient of the medal was Sgt. Friedrick Barchewitz, who led the way for millions of enlisted Marines to receive the medal, which was awarded for every three years of continuous good behavior and faithful service.

The award borrows the dark red field of the Navy Good Conduct Medal, which was introduced in 1884, but adds a bisecting dark blue stripe that represents the Marine Corps and distinguishes it from the Navy medal. Below the ribbon is a bronze rifle pointing to the right, representing the Lee Navy rifle; it acts as a suspension device for the medal’s metallic disc.

Measuring 1.25 inches in diameter, the bronze disc’s front depicts a Marine wearing a late Civil War-era uniform manning a Navy gun. Around the Marine is a rope and scroll displaying the Marine Corps motto, “Semper Fidelis,” as well as the words “United States Marine Corps.” A large anchor dominates the design; just inside the medal’s raised rim is an anchor chain.

The reverse of the medal is largely blank except for three words — “fidelity,” “obedience” and “zeal” — circling the inside of the medal’s rim.

As originally designed, the Good Conduct Medal included an upper bronze suspension bar inscribed with the words “U.S. Marines.” When the medal was worn, bronze bars denoted additional awards, but this practice was discontinued in 1953 along with the use of the upper suspension bar.

When worn as a ribbon, bronze numerals were used to indicate subsequent awards until 1946, when C\zn-inch bronze and silver stars were introduced.

In the early years of the Good Conduct Medal, the large, empty space on the back of the disc was used to inscribe the recipient’s name and service number, and dates for which the medal was issued. When the Corps’ ranks swelled during World War I, personalizing the medal gave way to the use of rim numbers, a practice that also fell into disuse over time.

The Good Conduct Medal originally was awarded to both active-duty and Reserve Marines, but in time, the criteria were changed so that only active-duty leathernecks were eligible for the award.

In 1939, the Corps introduced the Fleet Marine Corps Reserve Medal, which essentially fulfills the same purpose as the Good Conduct Medal. After several years, the award’s name was changed to the Organized Marine Corps Reserve Medal, and later, the Selected Marine Corps Reserve Medal.

While the color scheme of the SMCRM ribbon and the front of the disc are different from the Good Conduct Medal, the reverse of the medal bears the same inscription — fidelity, obedience and zeal. It is awarded to reservists who meet attendance criteria for scheduled drills over a four-year period.

The writer is a gunnery sergeant with the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit. He can be reached at