The Pentagon sparked an uproar among troops and veterans when it revealed that a new high-level medal honoring drone pilots will rank above some traditional combat valor medals in the military’s “order of precedence.”
The Distinguished Warfare Medal will be awarded to pilots of unmanned aircraft, offensive cyberwar experts or others who are directly involved in combat operations, but who are not physically in theater and facing the physical risks that warfare historically entails.
The new medal will rank just below the Distinguished Flying Cross. It will have precedence over — and be worn on a uniform ahead of — the Bronze Star with Valor device, awarded to troops for specific heroic acts performed under fire in combat.
“This award recognizes the reality of the kind of technological warfare we are engaged in the 21st century,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters in Washington as he announced the new medal on Feb. 13.
The medal will be awarded for specific acts, like the successful targeting of a specific individual at a critical time. It is the first new force-wide medal recognizing combat achievement since the Bronze Star was created in 1944.
But the decision by Pentagon officials to insert it near the top of the official medals “order of precedence” triggered a swift backlash among those who fear it will diminish the honor of the Purple Hearts and Bronze Stars that rank below it.
“This new medal — no matter how well intended — could quickly deteriorate into a morale issue,” John Hamilton, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said in a Feb. 14 statement. “Medals that can only be earned in direct combat must mean more than medals awarded in the rear.”
Hamilton urged the Pentagon to “reconsider the new medal’s placement in the military order of precedence.”
Panetta noted that other valor awards such as the Medal of Honor and Silver Star will continue to top the order of precedence; the new medal will specifically honor non-valorous combat impact.
“Our military reserves its highest decorations obviously for those who display gallantry and valor in actions when their lives are on the line, and we will continue to do so,” Panetta said.
“But we should also have the ability to honor the extraordinary actions that make a true difference in combat operations … particularly when they remove the enemy from the field of battle, even if those actions are physically removed from the fight,” Panetta said.
The service secretaries will make the final determination for awarding the Distinguished Warfare Medal. The design includes a brass pendant nearly 2 inches tall, with a laurel wreath that circles a globe and an eagle in the center. The ribbon has blue, red and white stripes.
Many citations for the new award are likely to be classified because of the sensitive nature of UAV strikes, Sterner noted.
The Pentagon announcement came as a surprise to Doug Sterner, a military medals expert and curator of the Military Times Hall of Valor, the largest database of military medal recipients.
“It’s got me puzzled,” Sterner said in an interview Wednesday. “I understand the need to recognize the guys at the console who are doing some pretty important things. But to see it ranking above the Bronze Star [with] V?”
Others suggested the medal is not really necessary.
“Why does it have to be a new medal?” said Nick McDowell, a member of the Orders and Medals Society of America.
High-tech troops could be recognized with current medals, or, if necessary, the Pentagon could add a new ribbon devices attached to an existing medal, McDowell said.
“The problem is that we’re adding another non-valor personal decoration into a system that is already crowded with non-valor personal decorations,” McDowell said. “The ultimate consequence is that it will diminish the prestige of the valor decorations. Nobody wants that, but that is basically what happens.”
A rigorous selection process likely will be used in awarding the new medal, said Fred Borch, president of the Order and Medals Society of America.
“If you’re going to put this new award ahead of, say, a Bronze Star with V, [it is] really indicating to the world that this award is going to be sparingly given,” Borch said.
“I can see that someone involved in a remotely piloted vehicle operation could successfully engage a target that was so important to the enemy that [its] destruction had huge significance tactically, operationally and strategically,” Borch said. “And you want to recognize and reward that.”
Pentagon officials sought to quell the criticism of the new medal, assuring the public that the Distinguished Warfare Medal will warrant its slot on the order of precedence.
The medal will be limited to “achievements that are truly extraordinary,” said a Pentagon spokesman, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen.
“Extraordinary achievement directly impacting combat operations at this level deserves to be recognized with a distinctive medal, not a device on an existing medal. The DWM is visionary in that it fills a need for a non-valorous combat impact medal,” Christensen said.
This is hardly the first time the Pentagon has faced controversy over the medals order of precedence. In 1985, complaints from veterans that the Purple Heart ranked too low prompted Congress to pass a law affixing the medal just below the Bronze Star, where it remains today.