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Defense Department broke with tradition in creating drone medal

The Distinguished Warfare Medal, which could go to servicemembers who never set foot in a combat zone, but launch drone strikes or cyberattacks that kill or disable an enemy.

WASHINGTON — Critics of the new Distinguished Warfare Medal have a new objection to the honor: Military officials broke more than 100 years of tradition by creating it without getting support from lawmakers first.

Doug Sterner, a military honors expert and archivist for the Hall of Valor awards database, said the Defense Department went against protocol by not consulting with Congress before establishing a new award.

Fourteen of the top 16 military medals by order of precedence — including the Medal of Honor, Silver Star and Bronze Star — all received Congressional approval prior to being established. The other two medals, the Defense Distinguished Service Medal and Defense Superior Service Medal, were created through a presidential executive order.

The new Distinguished Service Medal followed neither of those paths.

“It’s almost as if they tried to slip this one in the back door,” Sterner said. “For a department that has been so quick to cite tradition on how they award medals, they went against it here.”

On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced plans for a 30-day review of the new medal following intense criticism from veterans groups and members of Congress, mostly over its ranking above the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

More than two dozen senators have petitioned the Pentagon to lower the medal in the order of precedence, and 65 representatives have backed legislation to force military leaders to make that change.

The new award, announced last month, was created to honor “extraordinary actions” of drone pilots and other troops performing heroic deeds far away from combat zones.

Until this week, military leaders had insisted they would not be bullied into changing the ranking of the honor by outside groups, and questioned whether lawmakers were expanding their traditional authority by meddling in military medals.

But Sterner said the decision to exclude Congress actually broke tradition.

Defense officials dismissed that argument. Department spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen said federal code provides the defense secretary with “authority, direction, and control over the Department of Defense,” which includes the ability to create new awards.

“Although a number of military medals have been authorized by Congress or the President, others have been established by the Secretary of Defense or the secretaries of the military departments,” he said. “For example, the Secretary of Defense established the Joint Service Commendation Medal and Joint Service Achievement Medal.”

But both of those rank well below combat awards like the Bronze Star with V and Purple Heart, Sterner said. “Given the importance of this, you’d think they’d want to consult with Congress.”

Lawmakers praised Hagel’s decision to review the medal, but also added that it won’t slow their efforts to pass new legislation mandating its ranking be lowered. Joe Kasper, spokesman for Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., said he still intends to pass the rule as part of the department’s annual defense authorization bill.

“If this was an attempt to put members of Congress on ice, it’s not going to work,” he said. “The congressman is going to push to get this in the statute, regardless the result of the review.”

On Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman George Little said Hagel was confident the new award (created by his predecessor, Leon Panetta) was carefully and thoroughly analyzed within the Department of Defense.

Hagel ordered the review, he said, to calm some of the criticism from outside groups. A final decision on the matter is expected by April 12.

Debate on the annual authorization bills should begin around the same date.

shane.leo@stripes.com
Twitter: @LeoShane
 

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