The decorations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff shown on these pages are current examples of a venerable military tradition. Awarding medals to recognize the outstanding acts of military commanders and soldiers dates back at least to the time of Constantine I, the Christian Roman emperor who died in 337 A.D. Historians credit Gen. George Washington with formalizing the practice in the fledgling United States of America on Aug. 7, 1782, by issuing an order establishing the Purple Heart award. Explaining that he was "ever desirous to cherish a virtuous ambition in his soldiers," Washington directed that a heart-shaped piece of purple silk edged with lace be awarded for "unusual gallantry" and "extraordinary fidelity." On Feb. 22 1932, the 200th anniversary of Washington's birth, congress changed the basis for awarding the purple heart to those killed or wounded by enemy action.

Washington's step toward recognizing valor on the battlefield was not duplicated by the United States as a government until the outbreak of the Civil War. Sen. James Grimes of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Naval Committee, sponsored a bill, which President Lincoln signed into law on Dec. 21, 11861, establishing a medal of honor for "seamen and petty officers of the United States Navy who distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action and seaman-like qualities." Navy and Marine officers did not become eligible for this first Congressional Medal of Honor until 1915. Lincoln in 1862 signed a bill establishing such a medal for Army soldiers as well. Army officers became eligible for it a year later. To this day, the Congressional Medal of Honor is the most coveted of all the military awards. No member of the current Joint Chiefs of Staff has won one, as can be seen by an examination of their decorations.

Records show that the Congressional Medal of Honor was given most generally in our most divisive war, the Civil War, when 1,526 were awarded. This compares with 430 for World War II, suggesting the requirements for winning the Medal of Honor were tightened in the intervening 76 years.

Easier to win and still highly coveted by officers and enlisted people alike in the combat arms is the Silver Star for gallantry in action. The Bronze Star for heroic and meritorious achievement was cheapened during the Vietnam War, according to many professional military officers, because so manyu were awarded, including two to dogs. Army and Marine ground-pounders are often proudest of an award that is not a medal at all but a badge, the blue Combat Infantryman's Badge. It is the "I was there" badge within the mud soldier fraternity. Navy officers and sailors put the Navy Cross just below the Congressional Medal of Honor while Air Force pilots dream of winning the Distinguished Flying Cross. The first Army DFC went to then Capt. Charles A. Lindbergh for his solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927.

Service men and women wear a fruit salad of colorful ribbons on their uniforms -- abbreviated versions of the medals they have won. This often presents a strikign contrast in the uniforms of those who served during war and peace. "Winning medals," said one senior officer who has won so many that it takes five rows of ribbons to represent them all, "is mostly a matter of being in the right place at the right time." CAPTION: Picture 1 and 2, GEN. JOHN W. VESEY JR., Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff: Army Aviation Badge. Distinguished Service Cross; Defense Distinguished Service Medal; Distinguished Service Medal with one Oak Leaf Cluster; Legion of Merit with one Oak Leaf Cluster.

Bronze Star with one Oak Leaf Cluster; Air Medal (obscured) with 4 Device; Army commendation Medal; Purple Heart.

Good Conduct Medal; American Defense Service Medal; American Campaign Medal; European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal; World War II Victory Medal.

Army of Occupation Medal; National Defense Service Medal with one Oak Leaf Cluster; Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Palm; Republic of Vietnam Campaign Ribbon with two Bronze stars.

Since he is chairman, Vessey's Joint Chiefs of Staff Badge is worn in a different position on the jacket from his colleagues' and is not visible in this photograph.

Republic of Korea Order of Military Merit (Tai Geug), a decoration that is worn on a sash across the shoulder. Vessey also has been decorated by the governments of Chile, Uruguay and Thailand; Picture 3, GEN. ROBERT H. BARROW, Commandant of the Marine Corps: Navy Cross; Army Distinguished Service Cross; Defense Distinguished Service Medal; Silver Star; Legion of Merit with Combat V Device with two Gold stars; Bronze Star (obscured) with Combat V Device with Gold Star; Joint Service Commendation Medal with Oal Leaf Cluster; China Service Medal; American Campaign Medal.

Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with Bronze Star; World War II Victory Medal; National Defense Service Medal with one Bronze Star; Korean Service Medal with four Bronze Stars; Vietnam Serivce Medal with four Bronze stars; Brazilian Order of Naval Merit; Netherlands Order of Orange-Nassau (obscured); Philippine Legion of Honor; United Nations Service Medal; Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Badge.; Picture 4, ADM. JAMES D. WATKINS, Chief of Naval Operations: Watkins declined to make his dress uniform available for photograph. The photograph is of his full-size medals rather than the miniatures worn with a dress uniform.

Submarine Insignia.

Distinguished Service Medal with Gold Star; Legion of Merit with two Gold stars; Bronze Star with Combat V; Navy Commendation Medal.

World War II Victory Medal; Navy Occupation Service Medal; China Service Medal; National Defense Service Medal.

Korean Service Medal; Vietnam Service Medal with four Bronze stars; United Nations Service Medal; Vietnam Campaign Medal.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Badge; Picture 5, GEN. CHARLES A. GABRIEL, Air Force Chief of Staff: Air Force Command Pilot Wings.

Defense Distinguished Service Medal; Air Force Distinguished Service Medal; Legion of Merit; Disstinguished Flying Cross; Air Medal; Air Force Commendation Medal.

World War II Victory Medal; Army of Occupation Medal (Japan); National Defense Service Medal; Korean Service Medal; Vietnam Service Medal; Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Badge.; GEN. EDWARD C. MEYER, Army Chief of Staff: Meyer declined to make his dress uniform available for photograph or to supply a photograph of his medals. Military records indicate he normally wears the Combat Infantryman's Badge, Second Award; Master Parachutists Badge; Silver Star with Oal Leaf Cluster; Legion of Merit with two Oal Leaf clusters; Distinguished Flying Cross; Bronze Star with Combat V Device with two Oak Leaf clusters; Air Medal; Army Commendation Medal with Oal Leaf Cluster; and Purple Heart. He is also eligible to wear the Defense Department Distinguished Service Medal, but does not wear it. PHOTOGRAPHS OF VESSY, BARROW AND GABRIEL MEDALS BY MARGARET THOMAS. PHOTOGRAPH OF WATKINS MEDALS COURTESY OF THE DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE.