The announcement last week of a Distinguished Warfare Medal for drone operators and cyberwar practitioners only serves to highlight why we need Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense.
Though the issue of drones is raging hot and heavy, I personally don't have an issue with the medal itself. Troops don't set the policy, they just perform their duties. Therefore, if someone is doing a specific job for the military, it should be recognized. What I do have an issue with is this: The new medal ranks above the Purple Heart.
For those who served, that doesn't sit right.
On the VoteVets.org Facebook page, we solicited opinions. Here's just a couple of examples that encapsulate how veterans feel.
Christopher C. - No problem with the medal itself. Serious problem with its hierarchy ranking: It should not be above medals awarded for combat actions. I am seriously surprised that anyone would think it is reasonable to giving it that level of precedence.
Ethan C. - I think their service should be recognized with some kind of award but combat valor medals recognize real life and death situations on the actual battlefield. Combat awards should be given the highest placement.
This isn't a knock on Leon Panetta, but unlike Chuck Hagel, Panetta was never a grunt, an enlisted man. In Hagel, we have someone who brings that unique experience to the table. In fact, he'd be the first enlisted man ever to serve as Secretary of Defense.
Of course, in addition to that, Senator Hagel was awarded two Purple Hearts, so he knows full well the kind of sacrifice it takes to be awarded that medal. He's experienced it, and saw many other men in Vietnam experience it, as well. Indeed, his brother Tom, who served in the same infantry squad as him, was awarded three Purple Hearts. That's five Purple Hearts, between Hagel and his brother. A Salon article chronicled the brothers and their wounds:
Normally the Hagel brothers walked point, but one morning in 1968 they had rotated to the rear as their column of soldiers crept through the jungle. The soldier who took their place that day met instant death as he stepped on a huge land mine. Flying shrapnel ripped through the squad. It hit Tom's arm, but a bigger chunk lodged in Chuck's chest. Ignoring his own wound, Tom frantically wrapped compression bandages around Chuck's chest to stop the fountain of blood, praying his older brother would live long enough to make it out of the jungle.
A month later, their roles were reversed. Chuck saved Tom. During fierce combat, Chuck dragged an unconscious Tom out of a burning armored personnel carrier just before it blew up, turning his own face into a mass of bubbling blisters. Blood poured out of Tom's ears and now it was Chuck's turn to pray. Later, as he himself lay in a makeshift hospital close to death with severe burns, Chuck Hagel reflected on the horror of combat. "I vowed then to do what I could to stop wars," he told me years ago. "There is no glory in war."
While Hagel would never disparage the service of those who operate drones and are working on the increasingly important issue of cyberwarfare, I cannot imagine that, had he been secretary of defense, he would have approved of where the new medal ranks. Simply put, he understands how this would sit with so many of the men and women who served in combat, who saw troops shedding blood, and what it would mean to those who were wounded and received a Purple Heart.
Will Senator Hagel change where the medal stands in comparison to the Purple Heart, if he's confirmed? I can't say. It's awfully difficult to mess around with military awards once they're established. But, what I do know is this: If he's confirmed, he'll come at every decision from the perspective of Sgt. Hagel, the enlisted soldier in Vietnam. Whether it is the establishment of a new medal, or undertaking combat operations, Chuck Hagel will always think about how something may affect troops and their families, because he's been there.
That's something we need a lot more of in the Pentagon.