Well-known recipients include Lt. Col. Oliver North, Gens. George S. Patton and Douglas MacArthur, Sens. John Kerry and John McCain and, controversially, Pat Tillman -- the Arizona Cardinals football star turned Army Ranger who died as a result of friendly fire in Afghanistan. The Pentagon did not disclose those circumstances to his family or the public; they later were uncovered by the press.
The Silver Star honors service personnel who display exceptional valor while engaged in military combat operations against an enemy force. Personnel can also be honored for their service with friendly foreign troops in combat situations, even if the opposing force is one that the U.S. is not engaged in military conflict with.
It also can be awarded posthumously, as was the case with Tillman.
Acts of heroism that earn a Silver Star, though not deserving of a Distinguished Service Cross or a Medal of Honor, must have been “performed with marked distinction,” according to the Pentagon.
Kerry earned his Silver Star in Vietnam in 1969 for rescuing an Army Green Beret who had been knocked into the Mekong River when an explosion rocked their Swift boat. Kerry pulled the soldier aboard with an injured arm.
More recent recipients include Spc. Gerrit Kobes, a medic in the Washington Army National Guard who ran 500 yards under fire to treat wounded Iraqi troops after their convoy was attacked en route to Fallujah on Nov. 3, 2004. Another Silver Star recipient is Tech. Sgt. Kevin Whalen, a member of the Washington Air National Guard who called in air strikes on enemy fighters during an attack on his patrol in Afghanistan on July 19, 2003, despite a gunshot wound to his arm.
The Silver Star was first awarded in 1932 to replace the Citation Star, which had been pinned on the ribbon of a service medal and given for gallantry from the Spanish-American War to World War I. The U.S. military then allowed World War I veterans to apply to have the Citation Star converted to the Silver Star.
Despite its name, the medal is mostly gold. Gold rays emanate from a tiny silver star, encircled by a golden laurel wreath and then a larger gold star. The pendant hangs from a ribbon striped in red, white and blue. An inscription on the back reads "For gallantry in action."
The Silver Star is awarded to a recipient in person, and usually with a ceremony. A commander-in-theater with at least the rank of three-star general must recognize the recipient for acts of valor.