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Distinguished Warfare Medal is off to a rocky start

WASHINGTON -- Critics have dubbed it “the Nintendo medal” and “the Purple Buttocks.” Veterans groups are lobbying the White House against it. Lawmakers are working to downgrade it.

Pentagon officials, ignoring the criticism, are moving ahead with the new Distinguished Warfare Medal, designed to honor “extraordinary actions” of drone pilots and other off-site troops performing noteworthy deeds on far-away battlefields.

It’s months away from being awarded. The military has to mint the new awards, establish guidelines for processing nominations and find heroic operators to receive the honor.

That gives detractors time to wage their own war against the “distant warfare medal,” inside top military offices and from remote locations outside the Pentagon.

It will be a tough fight.

“This Pentagon, they’ve been immovable on fixes and mistakes in the awards system,” said Doug Sterner, military medals expert and archivist for the Hall of Valor awards database. “They’re closed-minded when it comes to outside criticism. They’re going to do what they’re going to do.”

Since the award was announced last month, veterans advocates have taken aim not at the creation of a new medal but at its placement in the order of precedence. Military planners have said the medal will rank immediately below the Distinguished Flying Cross – higher than the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, awards given for direct battlefield heroism.

American Legion National Commander James Koutz told his membership last week that a new honor for servicemembers serving safely from afar “should not outrank awards for troops’ serving in harm’s way.”

Officials from the Veterans of Foreign Wars broached the issue in their meeting with President Barack Obama this week, eliciting a promise from the commander-in-chief that he would review the issue.

And organizers at VoteVets.org have collected more than 5,000 responses to the medal -- most complaining about its position above the Bronze Star -- that they intend to share with new Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, a former enlisted soldier and a Purple Heart recipient.

“We think, with his background, he’ll want to take a look at this,” said Jon Solz, chairman of the group. “We’ve been his biggest supporters, and we’re bringing him what veterans are thinking about the issue right now. We hope he’ll listen.”

A trio of Republican veterans in Congress -- California’s Duncan Hunter, Florida’s Tom Rooney and Pennsylvania’s Tim Murphy -- have introduced legislation to lower the new medal in the order of precedence, a move military officials say is overstepping lawmakers’ traditional roles.

A companion bill is under discussion in the Senate, and the provision is expected to be part of the annual defense authorization act.

That’s key because the authorization bill is one of the few pieces of legislation to pass through Congress every year, regardless of the partisan gridlock. Lawmakers will likely finalize that measure in November or December, possibly before any of the new defense warfare medals are awarded.

Hunter has been a vocal critic of the military medals system in recent years, particularly the low number of medals of honor and other high-ranking valor awards.

Military medals officials have countered that better equipment, better weaponry and the changing nature of warfare have made those close-combat honors harder to earn. The new medal fits with that narrative -- today’s war heroes are fighting farther and farther from the front lines and can’t be honored in the same ways as in the past.

Sterner disagrees.

He said existing awards like the Legion of Merit, awarded by the military for “exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services,” could be used for non-traditional combat roles without harming the value of battlefield honors. The decision to establish a new medal shows a disconnect -- and stubbornness -- among Pentagon bureaucrats.

Pentagon spokesman Lt.Cmdr. Nate Christensen said despite the uproar since the medal announcement, “there are no plans to change the medal right now.”

shane.leo@stripes.com
Twitter: @LeoShane
 

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