As one of his last acts as Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta authorized a new Medal, the Distinguished Warfare Medal (DWM), to be awarded to service members whose extraordinary achievements, regardless of their distance to the traditional combat theater, deserve distinct department-wide recognition.
Some of the recipients of this new medal who Panetta had in mind were the operators, or “pilots,” of remotely piloted platforms, or drones.
“I have seen first-hand how modern tools like remotely piloted platforms and cyber systems have changed the way wars can be fought,” said Panetta. “We should also have the ability to honor extraordinary actions that make a true difference in combat operations, even if those actions are physically removed from the fight.”
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, perhaps sensing the controversial nature of the new medal added and clarified: “This new medal recognizes the changing character of warfare and those who make extraordinary contributions to it. The criteria for this award will be highly selective and reflect high standards.”
There was indeed a huge public outcry over the order of precedence of the new medal, especially from military and veterans organizations.
For example the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) issued the following statement:
The VFW fully concurs that those far from the fight are having an immediate impact on the battlefield in real-time, but medals that can only be earned in direct combat must mean more than medals awarded in the rear. The VFW urges the Department of Defense to reconsider the new medal’s placement in the military order of precedence.
VFW National Commander John E. Hamilton Hamilton said the new medal and its ranking “could quickly deteriorate into a morale issue.”
And it has.
Through the White House’s “We the People — Your Voice in our Government” petition process signatures were gathered for a petition to the Obama Administration to lower the precedence of the new Distinguished Warfare Medal.
The Petition reads:
The Pentagon is introducing a new medal to recognize the service of pilots of unmanned drones during combat operations. This medal will be placed in precedence order just below the Distinguished Flying Cross and just above a Bronze Star Medal. Bronze Stars are commonly awarded with a Valor device in recognition of a soldier’s service in the heat of combat while on the ground in the theater of operation. Under no circumstance should a medal that is designed to honor a pilot, that is controlling a drone via remote control, thousands of miles away from the theater of operation, rank above a medal that involves a soldier being in the line of fire on the ground. This is an injustice to those who have served and risked their lives and this should not be.
Reacting to the criticism, the Pentagon put out statements such as this one by Pentagon Press Secretary George Little:
We are not diminishing at all the importance of the Bronze Star — that remains an important award for our combat troops and will remain so …We expect this award to be granted pretty rarely, and that factored in to the decision [on its precedence].
The Armed Forces Press Service (AFPS) added:
To be eligible to receive the award, a service member has to have direct, hands-on employment, such as an unmanned aerial vehicle operator dropping a bomb or a cyber specialist detecting and fending off a computer network attack.
Combatant commanders must certify the impacts of the action before the award is forwarded to the service secretary for approval. The secretaries may not delegate that authority.
The explanations and clarifications have been to no avail. The outcry and backlash have continued.
Today, the new Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, ordered a review of the award, “in light of recent discussions concerning the new Distinguished Warfare Medal and its order of precedence relative to other military decorations” according to Pentagon Press Secretary George Little.
Hagel has directed Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to conduct the review and expects to make a decision about the medal’s fate after assessing the findings, according to AFPS.
The AFPS press announcement continues, in part:
Opponents of the medal question the hierarchy of technology-driven warfare such as unmanned aerial vehicles, unmanned underwater vehicles, missile defense and cyber capabilities, as the operators may not be anywhere near a combat zone.
“Production of the medal has stopped,” Little said, adding that there are so far no nominations for it, allowing time to make a final decision.
Little noted that the secretary has a long history of involvement and membership with veteran service organizations, including a stint as head of the USO.
“He’s heard their concerns, he’s heard the concerns of others, and he believes that it’s prudent to take into account those concerns and conduct this review,” Little said. “His style as a leader is to be [decisive] and also to be a ready listener.”