Nineteen groups representing veterans' service organizations and military associations are asking President Barack Obama to have the Defense Department lower the ranking of a new medal for drone pilots below that of the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.
The Distinguished Warfare Medal has been criticized since being announced by former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta during his final weeks at the Pentagon. In a move that further infuriated critics his successor, Chuck Hagel, initially said he would take no action on the medal; he has since yielded to the growing opposition by requesting a Pentagon review of its ranking.
"We view [Hagel's action] as a very encouraging sign, but demoting the medal below the Purple Heart is not yet a done deal, which is why we are soliciting your personal involvement," the leaders of the 19 organizations said in their letter to Obama.
The groups include the Veterans of Foreign Wars -- the first to pan the medal's ranking -- as well as The Military Order of the Purple Heart, The American Legion, Vietnam Veterans of America, and other professional associations that represent the interests of active duty and reserve members of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force.
The DWM is intended to recognize drone pilots and cyber warfare specialists whose actions have a direct impact on combat operations. Critics argue that a decoration for someone possibly thousands of miles away from the action and in a secure location should not take precedence over awards that may only be given for actual combat, where life is at risk.
As established, the DWM follows the Distinguished Flying Cross -- a valor award -- placing it above the Bronze Star, which may also be awarded for combat heroism, and the Purple Heart, presented for wounds and injuries from combat.
"No one disputes that drone operators, cyber warriors and others are having a tremendous and immediate impact on battlefields far away," the letter to Obama states, "but to create a new ‘war' medal that doesn't require physically serving in a warzone, and then to rank it above valor and injury medals that can only be earned in combat, has created a huge morale problem within the ranks."
As commander-in-chief of the military Obama can order a change in the medal's ranking or direct Hagel to do so, according to Lawrence Korb, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower and Reserve Affairs.
But should he decide not to weigh in on the controversy and the Pentagon not take action, it's likely Congress will make the decision for them. Korb said Congress historically has left military awards and decorations alone, essentially approving whatever the DoD or the service branches do.
But Congress also has the authority to order a change, he said.
Both the House and Senate currently have bipartisan legislation filed to place the DWM directly after the Purple Heart and to date no lawmaker has endorsed leaving the DWM where Panetta and the Joint Chiefs placed it.
The veterans group made the argument that Obama ordering a downgrade of the DWM would actually be a help to the Defense Department.
"The Pentagon has enough challenges to overcome in the months and years ahead. They don't need a self-inflicted morale problem added to the list," they said in their letter.
Other groups represented on the letter are: the Air Force Sergeants Association; AMVETS; the Disabled American Veterans; the Association of the U.S. Navy; the Fleet Reserve Association; the Jewish War Veterans Association; Marine Corps Reserve Association; Military Chaplains Association of the United States; the Military Officers Association of America; the National Association for Uniformed Services; the Non-Commissioned Officers Association; The Reserve Officers Association; The Retired Enlisted Association; the U.S. Army Warrant Officers Association; and U.S. Coast Guard Chief Petty Officers Association.