The Presidential Unit Citation’s history of heroism

On the last day of August 2023, the Pentagon announced that the Army and Marine Corps units that had rushed to Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul two years earlier would receive the nation’s highest unit award: the Presidential Unit Citation. The award will go to about 30 Army and Marine units that made up the ad hoc task force that held the airport as US and international air forces evacuated 124,000 Afghans in the face of a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in Aug. 2021. 

With the award, the Kabul units — which include the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit and Joint Task Force 82 of the 82nd Airborne Division — join a rollcall of historic teams and fighting units, big and small, that have earned the Presidential Unit Citation. 

Though less celebrated than individual awards like the Medal of Honor and Silver Star, the Presidential Unit Citation is the highest award a unit can receive for performing a mission. From World War II to today, it’s been awarded only rarely, and only for the most dangerous and difficult missions.

What is the Presidential Unit Citation?

The Presidential Unit Citation is America’s highest decoration that a military unit can receive and is nearly always awarded for combat. In fact, the official criteria for the award specifies that it will be awarded only for “acts of gallantry performed by a unit that are deemed equivalent to individual acts that would merit” an award of a service cross — the Navy or Air Force Cross or the Distinguished Service Cross in the Army.

The service crosses sit just below the Medal of Honor in individual awards.

In other words, an entire unit must go above and beyond their duty, and the performance of others in the same mission, to be recognized.

Once a unit receives the award, they are authorized to display the streamer on their colors. The Army, Air Force, and Space Force have the same streamer, which is solid blue; the Navy and Marine Corps have the same streamer with three horizontal sections of blue, yellow, and red; and the Coast Guard’s streamer has horizontal sections of white, orange, and blue.

Soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen who are authorized to wear their presidential unit citation banners on their uniform, each branch has a designated spot on the right or left side of the chest. The Army, Air Force, and Space Force wear a similar banner of blue with yellow borders; the Navy and Marine Corps banner is similar to their units’ Presidential Unit Citation streamer; and the Coast Guard’s banner has vertical sections of white, red, and blue. 

Rangers from the 75th Ranger Regiment holding their unit colors during a Pointe du Hoc ceremony on June 5, 2023. The 75th Ranger Regiment has six Presidential Unit Citations on its flag pole. Photo courtesy of the Best Defense Foundation/Josh Skovlund.

A brief history of the Presidential Unit Citation

According to Executive Order 10694, issued in 1957, a unit must carry out actions on a level equivalent to what is required for an individual to be awarded the Distinguished Service (Army), Navy, or Air Force Cross.

For unit awards, it is first in precedence, above various service awards and commendations of Valorous Unit, Gallant Unit and Meritorious Unit.

The vast majority of the awards have been for direct combat, though a few have been awarded for heroism in the face of unknown dangers, such as intelligence gathering. 

What units have received the Presidential Unit Citation?

Since it was created, the award has gone to a wide swath of units across all US military services in every war and for several specialized missions. The award has gone to units as large as full Army divisions and Marine Expeditionary Units and as small as the crew of a single Navy submarine.

Notable Presidential Unit Citations in each service include:


  • Multiple units that participated in Operation Overlord in World War II, and specifically, the beach landings on June 6, 1944, received the Citation. 
  • The 101st Airborne Division received the Citation for their actions to seize and hold Bastogne, Belgium, during the Battle of Bulge in WWII.
  • The 65th Infantry Regiment was awarded the Citation twice during the Korean War — first for fighting in the Uijongbu Corridor and, later, in the Iron Triangle at Hill 717.
  • MACV-SOG (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam Studies and Observations Group) was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for their covert actions, behind-enemy-lines actions in the Vietnam War.
  • The 75th Ranger Regiment has been awarded six Presidential Unit Citations for campaigns from WWII to current day — including the taking of Pointe du Hoc on D-Day and sustained combat in Afghanistan in 2010.

Marine Corps

  • Forces that fought at Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, Tarawa and other islands in the Pacific campaign.
  • 1st Marine Division at Inchon, Korea and again at Chosin Reservoir.
  • The Third Marine Division in Vietnam from March 1965 to Sept 1967.
  • The Ist Marine Expeditionary Force in the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003.
  • The Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan, also known as Task Force Leatherneck, for combat operations from May 2009 to April 2010.


  • The USS Enterprise and ships in its strike force around the Battle of Midway and for other actions during the Pacific island hopping campaign of World War II
  • USS Atlanta (CL 51) and her crew that patrolled off Guadalcanal. 
  • SEAL Team 6 for the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden on May 2, 2011.
  • Congress has introduced a bill encouraging the president to award the USS Indianapolis and its final crew to receive the Citation. 

Air Force

  • Numerous flying groups and squadrons for the bombing campaigns over both Europe and the Pacific in World War II.
  • 602d Fighter Squadron, Pacific Air Forces, which flew 400 sorties per month throughout Southeast Asia in early 1967.
  • The bomber units that flew Operation Linebacker, a sustained bombing campaign over North Vietnam.
  • 1st Air Commando Squadron, 34th Tactical Group, which flew almost 4,000 sorties and airlifted close to 2.2 million pounds of cargo and 17,000 passengers in 8 months in Vietnam.

Special awards

  • The USS Nautilus, a nuclear-powered submarine, received the Citation for being the first submarine to complete a submerged voyage under the North Pole in 1958. The ship’s authorized banners and ribbons include an “N” to signify the Nautilus mission.
  • Another submarine, the USS Triton, completed the first trip around the world of a nuclear sub as a part of its shakedown cruise in 1960. Those onboard wear the award with a globe clasp. 
  • Several Coast Guard units received the Citation for rescue and recovery efforts in response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. They wear the award with a clasp designed to resemble the hurricane symbol commonly seen on meteorology maps.
  • The U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, which is a non-military uniformed service, has received its own version twice, once for the 2014-2015 response to an Ebola outbreak in Africa, and again for the multi-year response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

FAQs about the Presidential Unit Citation

Q: Can foreign military units receive the Presidential Unit Citation?

A: Executive Order 10694 established that “units of armed forces of cobelligerent nations,” who served alongside the US Military may be awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for “outstanding performance in action” on or after December 7, 1941. Several NATO units have received the Presidential Unit Citation.

Q: How many Presidential Unit Citations have been awarded?

A: There have been hundreds of Presidential Unit Citations awarded to units throughout the US military since World War II. Pentagon officials told Task & Purpose there is no centralized database or authoritative list of those units.

Q: Who can wear the Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation?

A: Close to 90 different American military units received the award for their “exceptionally meritorious service” to the Republic of Korea between July 11, 1952 to Oct. 1, 1953.

Q: What’s the difference between the Distinguished Unit Citation and the Presidential Unit Citation?

A: Nothing, besides the years and service the Citations were awarded. In WWII, the Army and Navy were authorized different unit awards that both aimed to honor equivalent levels of gallantry and achievement. The Army award was dubbed the Distinguished Unit Citation. In 1957, the two awards were merged as the Presidential award, though each service continues to have its own version of the PUC today. Units that were earlier awarded the Distinguished award now refer to those awards as Presidential Unit Citations.

The latest on Task & Purpose

Source link: by Joshua Skovlund at