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Keep drone medal? DoD decision months overdue

Oct. 12, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
The Distinguished Warfare Medal (or defunct drone/cyber warrior medal).
The Distinguished Warfare Medal (or defunct drone/cyber warrior medal). ()
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The Pentagon’s decision on whether to replace the controversial and now-defunct medal to honor drone pilots and cyber warriors is several months overdue, leading to speculation that the proposed medal device may be scrapped entirely.

The so-called Distinguished Warfare Medal was fraught with controversy from the start. It was unveiled in February as a way to honor troops who are directly involved in combat operations, but who are not physically in theater, facing the physical risks that warfare historically entails.

Combat veterans were outraged by the new medal’s rank in the official Order of Precedence that placed it above the Bronze Star, which honors ground troops for specific acts of heroism performed under fire.

After Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel took over the Pentagon’s top job in late February, he took the unusual measure of overturning his predecessor’s decision and eliminated the medal.

Hagel, a Vietnam War veteran who was awarded two Purple Hearts, said drone pilots and cyber warriors were more appropriately honored by a “distinguishing device that can be affixed to existing medals.”

In April, Hagel vowed to formalize the details of the new device, clarify the medals it can be attached to, and designate the top officials who will have authority to approve it. Military officials said that process would be completed in July.

“I was under the impression that it was just going to be totally dropped,” said Doug Sterner, a medals expert and curator of the Military Times Hall of Valor, the largest public database of U.S. military medals.

Pentagon officials say the issue remains under discussion internally.

“The department is fully committed to appropriately recognizing our soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen for their service, sacrifices and specific contributions to combat operations. At this time, there is no final decision regarding the distinguishing device for remote impacts on combat operations,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman.

Issuing the medal, which was designed and in production earlier this year, was among the last initiatives from former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who previously headed the CIA and oversaw extensive drone and cyberwar activities.

“This award recognizes the reality of the kind of technological warfare we are engaged in the 21st century,” Panetta said in announcing the medal.

The medal was the first new force-wide medal recognizing combat achievement since the Bronze Star was created in 1944. Its creation was strongly supported by the Air Force, which has struggled to retain drone pilots to meet today’s high demand.

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