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The Defense Department may soon be squaring off against Congress over a new medal for drone pilots and cyber warfare specialists that takes precedence over the Bronze Star for valor and the Purple Heart.
Three lawmakers have waded into the controversy over the Distinguished Warfare Medal with a bill that would prohibit DoD from rating the new award equal to or higher than those medals awarded for battlefield actions or wounds.
"These [combat] awards represent not just actions, but also the courage and sacrifice that derive from experiences while in harm's way. And those engaged in direct combat put their lives on the line, accepting extraordinary personal risk," Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., said in a joint statement with co-sponsors Reps. Tom Rooney and Tim Murphy. All three are veterans.
The new DWM would be awarded to drone pilots and cyber warfare specialists whose actions have a direct impact on combat operations. Hunter said he supports an award recognizing commendable actions off the battlefield, but "it's absolutely necessary to ensure that combat valor awards are not diminished in any way."
Huntercs bill may set up a clash between Congress and the Pentagon, which has already said it will not reconsider changing the precedence of the new medal.
The new medal's placement among military awards and decorations quickly drew criticism from the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Military Order of the Purple Heart. John Bircher, a spokesman for the MOPH, said the group supports Hunter's legislation.
"It's an unusual action for the Congress to jump in the middle of what is normally a DoD decision," he said. "On the other hand Congress has approved every decoration" in the past.
The DWM, as specified by the Pentagon, is rated just below the Distinguished Flying Cross, a valor award. That places it higher than the Bronze Star and Air Medals awarded for valor, the Soldiers Medal and the Air Force Airman's Medal, both awarded for non-combat heroism, the Purple Heart and the Prisoner of War Medal.
The Army, Air Force and Navy/Marine Corps Commendation medals may also be awarded with a "V" device for valor, but are primarily achievement awards.
Hunter's bill would place the DWM after the Bronze Star and Purple Heart but not change the precedence of any other medals.
Hunter spokesman Joe Kasper said Wednesday that the congressman has long had issues with the Pentagon's awards system. Hunter, a Marine veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, was one of the early and principal leaders on Capitol Hill demanding to know why the Medal of Honor was not being awarded to any troops for actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Kasper said Pentagon officials going back to Robert Gates' tenure as defense secretary argued for awards such as the new DWM because the nature of warfare has changed.
"They'd say it's a different type of war … it's push-button in nature," Kasper said. "You talk to Congressman Hunter, who was in Fallujah, you talk to a lot of these Marines who were in Anbar Province and Fallujah – they will tell you that the Iraq War was far from a push-button war. And Afghanistan, too."
He said Hunter wants the new medal's precedence changed quickly, before any have been awarded.
"Once an award is created and it's going out the door for who-knows-what, it's more difficult to change how it rates or eliminate it altogether," he said.