WASHINGTON - The military has stopped production of a new medal for remote warfare troops — drone operators and cyber warfighters — as it considers complaints from veterans and lawmakers over the award, which was ranked higher than traditional combat medals like the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel has ordered a review of the Distinguished Warfare Medal, which was to be awarded to troops who operate drones and use other technological skills to fight America's wars from afar.
Pentagon press secretary George Little said Tuesday that Hagel ordered another look in light of concerns by lawmakers and veterans groups over the fact that the new medal was ranked above medals for those who served on the front line in harm's way, such as the Purple Heart given to wounded troops.
"He's heard their concerns, he's heard the concerns of others," Little said of Hagel.
If the review agrees with those complaints, the medal would likely have to be renamed and new medals manufactured, a government official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record. It was not immediately known how many had been produced.
Veterans of Foreign Wars spokesman Joe Davis called Hagel's action "a very encouraging sign" but noted that fixing the problem is "not yet a done deal."
Hagel's decision "shows exactly why we supported him" for defence secretary, said VoteVets.org, a progressive political action committee that has been lobbying for a change in the medal. "Having a former grunt who served in war at the top in the Pentagon means a deeper understanding of those who are serving our nation right now."
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Ca., said fixing the issue is one thing, but the Pentagon also should "admit this was a bad idea" in the first place.
In ordering a new look at the medal, Hagel said Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey would lead a review of how the medal is ranked among others — where it is in what the military calls "the order of precedence" of the medal, Little said.
Hagel is going to work with Dempsey, the service secretaries and the service chiefs to review the ranking. He wants Dempsey to report back in 30 days.
In addition to vet concerns, there is a practical side to the rankings for currently serving troops. There are grades of medals — commendation, merit, distinguished — that affect not only the name but promotions for those still in uniform. Each grade gives troops a certain number of points needed for promotions.
Former Defence Secretary Leon Panetta announced the new medal last month, saying it was meant to recognize battlefield contributions in a world of changing warfare.
"I've seen firsthand how modern tools, like remotely piloted platforms and cyber systems, have changed the way wars are fought," Panetta said. "And they've given our men and women the ability to engage the enemy and change the course of battle, even from afar."
Over the last decade of war, remotely piloted Predator and Reaper drones have become a critical weapon to gather intelligence and conduct airstrikes against terrorists or insurgents around the world. They have been used extensively on the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and northern Africa.
Over the same time, cyberattacks have become a growing national security threat, with Panetta and others warning that the next Pearl Harbor could well be a computer-based assault.
Officials said in announcing the medal last month that it would be the first combat-related award to be created since the Bronze Star in 1944. And, they said that in recognition of the evolving 21st century warfare, the medal would be considered a bit higher in ranking than the Bronze Star, but lower than the Silver Star.
The VFW and other groups say that ranking it ahead of the Bronze Star and Purple Heart is an injustice to those who served on the front-lines.
John Bircher, a spokesman for the Military Order of the Purple Heart, has said the veterans groups are not objecting to the medal — just the ranking. He said some medals ranked ahead of the Purple Heart are achievement medals that can be earned outside of war time. What bothers many veterans is that the new Distinguished Warfare Medal appears be a war-time medal that trumps acts of valour, which he finds insulting.
The backlash to the Pentagon's announcement included an online petition to the White House signed by thousands of people. The petition called the medal "an injustice to those who served and risked their lives" and asked that it not be allowed to move forward as planned.
Hunter said the decision to rank the new medal "so high represents everything that's wrong with the awards process."
"Acts of valour in Iraq and Afghanistan have been underrepresented, with only 11 Medals of Honor awarded," he said in a statement, naming troops who he said "have been failed by the awards process" and calling on the military to correct their cases.