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Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Tuesday halted production of the new Distinguished Warfare Medal for drone pilots and cyberwarriors, and ordered a review of its ranking above the Bronze Star with Combat "V" and the Purple Heart.
Hagel announced the review following heated criticism from Congress and veterans groups such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars. No servicemember has received the medal thus far, said George Little, the Pentagon's chief spokesman.
The defense secretary directed Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to conduct the review of the medal's position in the "order of precedence" for military decorations and report back to him in 30 days, Little said.
In addition, "production of the medal as designed has been stopped" pending the review by Dempsey, Little said.
In one of his last acts as Pentagon chief, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last month announced that the Distinguished Warfare Medal was being created to recognize "the changing character of warfare" in the Internet era in which servicemembers sitting at consoles in the United States can directly impact the outcome of battle with an enemy overseas.
Panetta said that as CIA Director and then Pentagon chief he had "seen first-hand how modern tools like remotely-piloted platforms and cyber systems have changed the way wars can be fought, changed the course of battle even from afar."
But the medal's ranking, just below the Distinguished Flying Across and ahead of the Bronze Star with Combat "V" and the Purple Heart, provoked a firestorm of criticism in Congress and among veterans groups who charged that the new medal was a disservice to those who earned their decorations directly in harm's way.
The initial Pentagon response was to defend the medal's placement in the "order of precedence," but Little made clear that Hagel, himself the recipient of two Purple Hearts for service as an Army sergeant in Vietnam, had given serious thought to the critics.
"He has heard their concerns," Little said, and in the E-ring corridors of the Pentagon "there has been considerable discussion on the creation of the Distinguished Warfare Medal.
As recently as March 8, Hagel wrote a letter to the VFW in which he said he was satisfied with the ranking of the new medal.
"I have discussed at length the reasoning and process leading up to establishing the DWM with the [service secretaries and chiefs] and accept their judgment that the award is at the appropriate level," Hagel said in his letter.
However, Hagel has since changed his mind and opened up a review of the medal.
"In light of the concerns, a review of the order of precedence and associated matters" involving the medal was ordered by Hagel, Little said.
Hagel has not spoken to Panetta about his decision to review the medal's standing, but "former Secretary Panetta has been advised of the decision to conduct the review," Little said.
In a statement, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which has lobbied to change the medal's ranking, said Hagel's action was encouraging "but demoting the medal below the Purple Heart is not yet a done deal, which is why the VFW will continue to urge the White House and Congress to force the Pentagon to do the right thing for our combat forces."
In voicing his opposition to the new medal, VFW Commander John Hamilton said that "this is a policy disagreement over the placement of the new medal, not whether drone operators, cyber warriors and others don't deserve to be properly recognized for the tremendous impact they are bringing to the battlefield in real-time."
In a posting on his website Monday, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) said: "While I fully support appropriate recognition of all military personnel whose extraordinary actions make a difference in combat operations, I am concerned about this decision and the new medal's ranking in DOD's order of precedence."
"Pennsylvania's veterans and others have told me of their concerns with ranking the new medal above some combat valor medals, such as the Bronze Star Medal with valor device," Toomey said.