In a move that was certain to be controversial, and 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.
Criticism was swift to come, not only from outside the military -- from those opposed to the use of drones -- but also from troops and veterans when it became known that the new medal honoring drone pilots would rank above some traditional combat valor medals such as the Bronze Star and just below the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Through the White House's "We the People -- Your Voice in our Government" petition process, thousands of signatures were gathered for a petition to the Obama Administration to lower the precedence of the new Distinguished Warfare Medal.
The Petition read in part:
"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 allowed to move forward as planned."
Many other groups and organizations joined in the protest.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars, according to Military.com, fully concurred "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." VFW National Commander John E. Hamilton said in a statement released on Feb. 14, "The VFW urges the Department of Defense to reconsider the new medal's placement in the military order of precedence." Hamilton added that the new medal and its ranking "could quickly deteriorate into a morale issue."
Perhaps stung by the controversy created by the announcement of the new medal, and especially by the "precedence" of the medal over other decorations, Juliet Beyler, the acting director of officer and enlisted personnel management in the Pentagon, on Feb. 15, attempted to clarify some aspects by providing "qualifying" examples such as:
"... a service member who is involved in a cyber attack on a specific military target.
... an unmanned aerial vehicle operator who takes out a specific military target.
... a service member who is orchestrating and moving troops on a battlefield, but perhaps, is not physically present, but does something that contributes in some extraordinary way to the battle."
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 explanations and clarifications have been to no avail. The outcry and backlash continued.
On March 12, 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" and directed Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to conduct the review. Hagel said that he expected to make a decision about the medal's fate after assessing the findings.
Yesterday, the Secretary of Defense issued a memorandum acknowledging that "the character of modem warfare has changed, and will continue to evolve," expressing appreciation to his predecessor, Leon Panetta, for being "acutely aware of how remotely piloted vehicles and cyber operators were directly and significantly impacting combat operations" and for realizing as Hagel does "that the extraordinary and meritorious achievements of our Service men and women who employ this technology deserve distinct recognition."
However, Hagel says:
"Based on the April 9, 2013 recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and concurred in by the Military Department Secretaries, I agree that such recognition is best accomplished through the creation of a distinguishing device that may be affixed to existing medals at various levels rather than through award of the DWM. I direct that within 90 days, final award criteria and the specifics of the distinguishing device, as referenced in the April 9 recommendations, be developed and presented to me for final approval."
"Utilizing a distinguishing device to recognize impacts on combat operations reserves our existing combat medals for those Service members who incur the physical risk and hardship of combat, perform valorous acts, are wounded in combat, or as a result of combat give their last full measure for our Nation. This memorandum supersedes the memorandum dated Feb. 13,2013, that announced the creation of the DWM."
In a separate statement Hagel says:
"When I came into office, concerns were raised to me about the Distinguished Warfare Medal's order of precedence by veterans' organizations, members of Congress, and other stakeholders whose views are valued by this department's leadership.
After consulting with the service secretaries, along with Gen. Dempsey and the other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I directed them to review the Distinguished Warfare Medal. The medal was originally conceived to be awarded only to those men and women who, while serving off the battlefield, have an extraordinary impact on combat operations. While the review confirmed the need to ensure such recognition, it found that misconceptions regarding the precedence of the award were distracting from its original purpose.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff, with the concurrence of the service secretaries, have recommended the creation of a new distinguishing device that can be affixed to existing medals to recognize the extraordinary actions of this small number of men and women. I agree with the Joint Chiefs' findings, and have directed the creation of a distinguishing device instead of a separate medal.
The service men and women, who operate and support our remotely piloted aircraft, operate in cyber, and others are critical to our military's mission of safeguarding the nation. I again want to thank my predecessor, Leon Panetta, for raising the need to ensure that these men and women are recognized for their contributions."
Image courtesy of the Department of Defense