In a ceremony that one recipient called a "PR move," the Air Force yesterday gave eight airmen medals for heroism as a result of their actions during the Titan II missile explosion last September near Damascus, Ark. Several of those being honored have privately been critical of the way senior Strategic Air Command officers handled the accident, which killed one airman and injured 21 others.

One medal was awarded posthumously to Senior Airman David Livingston, who was one of four airmen who entered the missile complex hours after a hole had been punched in the giant rocket and its volatile fuel had begun leaking.

The silo exploded just as Livingston and Sgt. Jeffery Kennedy were emerging from the underground complex after taking measurements of the vapor exposure levels. The measurement had been requested by the SAC vice commander, Lt. Gen. David R. Leavitt Jr.

Livingston's father, who in the past has criticized Leavitt's judgment in sending his son down into the complex, was on hand to accept the award. The senikor Livingston was not available yesterday for comment.

Kennedy, who was also severely injured in the explosion, is another medal recipient. On Wednesday, Kennedy was told by the Air Force that he would not be given a medical discharge for the injuries he received in the accident. Instead, he was ordered back to active duty for the two years remaining in his enlistment.

Another recipient, Senior Airman John Devlin, who also was injured by the blast, is to be discharged within the next few days because his enlistment has come to an end. Devlin and another medal recipient, Senior Airman Rex Hunkle, are both suing the Martin-Marietta Co., builder of the missile, for injuries they received. By law the two airmen cannot sue the Air Force, although both are arguing in their lawsuit that the 18-year-old, liquid-fueled missile had become unsafe for operational use.

The senior Livingston has filed a similar suit on behalf of his son.

Air Force Secretary Verne Orr presented the medals at a ceremony held at Little Rock Air Force Base. Orr then held a news conference and toured one of Arkansas's remaining 17 Titan II sites.

His trip was arranged at the request of Rep. Ed Bethone (R-Ark.), whose districtr houses most of the state's Titan missile sites.

The idea for the medals came from the Air Force, congressional sources said last week. The service, one House member's aide said, wanted to make member's aide said, wanted to make "an appropriate gesture" to the state.

It had been announced earlier this year that the Damascus site would not be rebuilt, leaving 52 Titan II missiles in operation. Thirty-six others are located in Kansas and Arizona. One Kansas site, which was destroyed by an oxidizer leak in 1978, is now being reconstructed.