This award was established by Executive Order 11545 on July 9, 1970. A rather unique feature of this decoration is that it is awarded by the Secretary of Defense and has no delegated authority. No one else can even initiate a recommendation, it is awarded solely at the initiative and pleasure of the Secretary of Defense. It is awarded to high ranking military officers (Generals or Admirals), who perform exceptionally meritorious service in a degree of great responsibility with the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Special or outstanding command in a Defense Agency or for any other Joint Activities designated by the Secretary of Defense. It is rarely awarded.
The medal was designed by Mildred Orloff and sculpted by Lewis J. King, Jr., both of the Institute of Heraldry. The medal is gold in color and on the obverse it features a medium blue enameled pentagon (point up). Superimposed on this in an American bald eagle with wings outspread facing left grasping three crossed arrows in its talons and on its breast is a shield of the United States. The pentagon and eagle are enclosed within a gold pieced circle consisting, in the upper half of thirteen five-pointed stars and in the lower half, a wreath of laurel on the left and olive on the right. At the top is a suspender of five graduated gold rays. The reverse of the medal has the inscription "For Distinguished Service" at the top in raised letters, and within the pentagon the inscription "From The Secretary of Defense To," all in raised letters.
The ribbon has a center stripe of dark red flanked on either side by wide stripes of gold and medium blue. This decoration takes precedence over the Distinguished Service Medals of the separate services and is not to be awarded to any individual for a period of service for which an Army, Navy, Air Force or Coast Guard Distinguished Service Medal is awarded.
The first Defense Distinguished Service Medal was awarded to Gen. Earle G. Wheeler, U.S. Army, upon his retirement as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Staff.