Hagel Repeals Drone Service Medal

The Pentagon has the Distinguished Warfare Medal for drone pilots and cyber warfare specialists that will rank higher in the order of precedence for military decorations than the Bronze Star with Combat "V."

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has repealed a medal created just two months ago to recognize the achievements of drone pilots and cyber specialists, ordering that a separate "distinguishing device" be used instead.

Then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Feb. 13 announced the Distinguished Warfare Medal for pilots of unmanned aircraft and cybersecurity operators who had "an extraordinary impact on combat operations" even though they did not serve on the battlefield.

Veterans groups complained that the medal would unfairly be ranked above the Bronze Star with Combat "V" and the Purple Heart, two medals designed to acknowledge the service and sacrifice of troops who served in combat. 

Hagel halted the production of the medal on March 12 and ordered a review of the medal after initially supporting the creation of it. A review led by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and service secretaries recommended the creation of a distinguishing device that can be affixed to existing medals. The same group had supported the creation of the medal when Panetta first announced it.

"I agree with the Joint Chiefs’ findings, and have directed the creation of a distinguishing device instead of a separate medal," Hagel said in a statement released Monday.

The military leaders found the debate about the precedence of the award "distracting" from the award's purpose, according to the Hagel's statement. He ordered the award criteria and other details to be presented to him for final approval within 90 days.

Groups such as The American Legion and VFW welcomed the decision.

"Cyber and drone warfare have become part of the equation for 21st-century combat, and those who fight such battles with distinction certainly deserve to be recognized," James Koutz, national commander of the American Legion, said in a statement. "But The American Legion still believes there’s a fundamental difference between those who fight remotely, or via computer, and those fighting against an enemy who is trying to kill them."

His group had protested the proposed medal's ranking in the order of precedence, a hierarchical structure of military awards topped by the Medal of Honor, the highest medal for valor. Koutz, a Vietnam veteran, previously said placing the medal above those given for valor and courage under fire was "wholly inappropriate."

John Hamilton, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, agreed.

"This decision will clearly keep medals that can only be earned in combat in their high order of precedence, while providing proper recognition to all who support our war fighters regardless of their distance from the fight," he said in a statement.

Members of Congress stepped forward to voice their concern with the medal’s order of precedence. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., said veterans in his state contacted his office with concern over the medal.

"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.

Hagel’s decision to repeal the medal is a reversal to his initial reaction. On March 8, Hagel wrote a letter to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in which he said he was satisfied with the ranking of the new medal.

Doug Sterner, the curator of the Military Times Hall of Valor, an online database of military awards, said he's "very pleased" with Hagel's decision to rescind the medal.

"I referred to it jokingly as the Nintendo Medal or the Redundant Medal because it was totally unnecessary," he said. "We have a range of existing medals that can accomplish what they want to do," including the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Legion of Merit, he said.

With the decision, the Pentagon leadership seems to be more willing to listen to outside advice and criticism, Sterner said.

"I like to think it might be because they got a former enlisted man at the helm," he said, referring to Hagel, who received two Purple Hearts as an infantry squad leader in Vietnam before becoming a U.S. senator from Nebraska.

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