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In contrast to the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy or U.S. Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal, a service stripe is presented to enlisted personnel upon completion of the specified term of service, regardless of the service member's disciplinary history. For example, a soldier with several non-judicial punishments and courts-martial would still receive a service stripe for three years service, whereas in the same situation, the Good Conduct Medal would be denied.
In 1777 the French ancien régime army had used Galons d'ancienneté, or "Seniority Braid" (cloth braid chevrons nicknamed brisures > "breaks") worn on the upper sleeves awarded for each seven years of enlistment. Soldiers who wore such emblems were called briscards. The practice was continued in Napoleon Bonaparte's army in which they were awarded for 10, 15, and 20 years of service. The French Army later moved them to the lower sleeves and the rank stripes to the upper sleeves. Service chevrons were worn on the lower left sleeve and Wound Stripes were worn on the lower right sleeve (influencing the American Wound Chevron device).
In the United States, the concept of a service stripe dates back to 1782 when, during the American Revolution, George Washington ordered that enlisted men who had served for three years "with bravery, fidelity and good conduct" should wear "a narrow piece of white cloth, of angular form" on the left sleeve of the uniform coat. In the US Army, sleeve stripes denoted a successful completion of a standard enlistment. They were the same color as the enlisted rank stripes and were "half-chevrons" (angled strips of cloth). Service during the American Civil War was denoted by a red stripe bordered by the rank stripe color (called a "Blood Stripe"). The Artillery, who had red stripes, wore a white stripe bordered red instead.
Wear and use
Sleeve stripes are worn only by enlisted personnel. U.S. Navy sailors and U.S. Army soldiers wear their stripes on the bottom cuff of the left sleeve, whereas Marines wear them at the bottom cuff of both sleeves. Soldiers wear them on the left sleeve and Overseas Service Bars on the right one. Service stripes are only worn on formal uniforms, and are not seen on the more common day-to-day working uniforms.
The U.S. Navy also issues gold service stripes to those service members with over twelve cumulative years service. The service must be free of disciplinary action in the United States Navy, United States Navy Reserve, United States Marine Corps, or the United States Marine Corps Reserve in a pay status. The Marine Corps issues service stripes to those service members for every four years of service.
In cases where a disciplinary infraction has occurred, the service member is not denied a service stripe but simply is issued the standard red stripe design.
The Coast Guard issues gold and red service stripes, as well, but the distinction exists between junior enlisted personnel (E-1 to E-6 who wear red service stripes) and chief petty officers (E-7 to E-9 who wear gold service stripes).
United States Military Academy
These stripes are also used on the sleeves of the full dress uniform worn by cadets of the United States Military Academy at West Point, which denote the number of years a cadet has been at the academy. This is also done by cadets of other military colleges and prep schools.
United States Air Force
The United States Air Force is the only branch of service that does not issue service stripes. The Air Force Longevity Service Award is issued in lieu. Historically, persons who were in the Army Air Forces and then became part of the Air Force when it was separated in 1947 could continue to wear their service stripes.
Law enforcement use
In many civilian law enforcement agencies in the United States, officers and sheriff's deputies will be awarded service stripes for wear on their long sleeved uniforms, usually on the lower left sleeve. One stripe may be worn for every three, four or five years of service and differs from agency to agency.