A Pentagon plan to award a medal for combat operations to drone pilots is being challenged by Senators who say the medal should not rank higher than medals earned under fire.
Sen. John Tester, D-Mont., on Wednesday filed legislation directing the Department of Defense to change the precedence of the new Distinguished Warfare Medal so that it follows the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart; the bill corresponds to one filed late last month in the House by Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif.
"The front lines of conflict are changing, but the folks who serve directly in the theater of war are at greater risk and we should fully acknowledge the risks that their service brings," Tester said in a joint statement.
The DWM, intended for drone pilots and cyber warfare specialists whose actions have a direct impact on combat operations, was announced in February by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Officials said Panetta, Joint Chiefs' Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and the service chiefs all backed the medal and where it fit relative to other military awards and decorations.
But veterans' groups, starting with the Veterans of Foreign Wars, immediately took issue with the medal's ranking above the Bronze Star, which is also awarded for valor, and the Purple Heart, which is awarded for combat wounds and injuries.
"It is very important to properly recognize all who faithfully serve and excel, but this new medal -- no matter how well intended -- quickly deteriorated into a morale issue," said John E. Hamilton, a Marine Vietnam veteran who now heads the VFW.
Currently, the DWM 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 Soldier's 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.
The Senate bill, like the House bill, would place the DWM after the Bronze Star and Purple Heart but not change the precedence of any other medals.
The other possibility is that the Defense Department would make the change before Congress acts on either of the bills.
Hamilton is hoping newly appointed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel – Purple Heart recipient as a result of wounds sustained in Vietnam – will act to change the medal's precedence.
"We know that overruling a predecessor's decision puts Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel into an uncomfortable position, but it is the absolute right thing to do for the troops," Hamilton said. "Medals that can only be earned in combat must mean more than new medals awarded in the rear."