Senators Want Military Ribbons for Service Members Who Compete in Olympics

First Lt. Amber English gold medal for women’s skeet at 2020 Summer Olympics.
First Lt. Amber English wins gold medal for women’s skeet at the 2020 Summer Olympic Games, July 26, 2021. (U.S. Army photo by Brittany Nelson)

Service members who win medals at the Olympics or Paralympics would be allowed to wear them in uniform, and all who compete in the quadrennial athletic competitions could get a special service ribbon under a plan advanced in the Senate this week.

An amendment that was attached to the Senate's version of the annual defense policy bill this week would require the military departments to update uniform and insignia policies to add references to Olympic and Paralympic medals "where applicable."

The amendment would also require the Defense Department to complete a report on the "feasibility and cost of establishing a service ribbon to be awarded to any member of the Armed Forces who has competed as an Olympic or Paralympic athlete on Team USA."

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“Military Olympians are great ambassadors for the U.S. armed forces, which is why there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to display their accomplishments, ” Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the amendment’s sponsor said in an emailed statement to “My amendment proposes a way to allow servicemembers to proudly showcase their Olympic achievements – just like they already do with other service-related achievements – and I hope that Congress includes this proposal in the final version of this year’s NDAA.”

A handful of active-duty service members typically compete in the Olympics and Paralympics every four years, oftentimes capturing the hearts of Americans and bringing home medals.

For example, nine service members competed in the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, and 19 military athletes were on Team USA in the Tokyo Summer Olympics last year. In the Tokyo games, marksman and Army 1st Lt. Amber English became the second U.S. woman ever to win a gold in skeet shooting and set a record for number of targets hit in an Olympics final round.

Three active-duty service members also competed in the Paralympics in Tokyo, including swimmer Army Sgt. 1st Class Elizabeth Marks winning gold, silver and bronze in separate events and setting a world speed record for the women's 100-meter backstroke.

The Army even has a special program, the World Class Athlete Program, for elite athletes to train and compete year-round with the goal of qualifying for the Olympics or Paralympics.

The ribbon Thune's amendment wants the Pentagon to consider would be called the "Olympic Competition Ribbon" and incorporate the colors of the Olympic rings. There would also be attachments authorized to be affixed to the ribbon to signify that the service member had won a medal. The ribbon would be awarded retroactively to anyone that qualifies.

The measure was one of 75 amendments that were considered non-controversial that were attached to the Senate's version of the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, during a brief session of the upper chamber on Tuesday.

The Senate Armed Services Committee advanced its version of the NDAA in June, but the bill, which lawmakers consider "must-pass," has been waiting for a floor vote ever since.

While Congress is on recess until mid-November to allow lawmakers time to campaign for the midterm elections, senators agreed to take procedural action during the break that will allow the NDAA to be voted on more quickly when the Senate returns to session.

Once the Senate approves its version, lawmakers will have to reconcile it with the version of the NDAA the House passed in July. A final negotiated version is expected to be completed and signed into law by the end of the year.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include a statement from Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., about his amendment.

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

Related: Meet the Military Athletes Competing at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing

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