WASHINGTON — With the politically dicey issue of how to recognize service by drone pilots and cyber warriors still awaiting an answer, the Pentagon announced Tuesday a broad-ranging review to settle not only that question, but examine the full range of medals and awards.
Officials said the review, ordered by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, would likely kick off within a month or so and be complete by late 2014 or early 2015.
Beyond determining how new warfare technologies would fit into the medal picture, the parameters of the review are still being worked out, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said.
“As the wars are ending … rather than looking piecemeal at any specific one, he wants to do a comprehensive review of them all,” Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said.
Hagel’s own soldiering background — he was awarded two Purple Hearts in Vietnam — drives his desire to make sure the system for awarding medals and decorations is functioning as it should, Kirby told Foreign Policy, which first reported the review.“Having seen combat himself, Secretary Hagel fully understands and respects the traditions that come with awards and decorations,” he said. “This is a process that will take time and care, but he believes it’s important it’s done right.”
Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced the Distinguished Warfare Medal for drone pilots and cyber operators last February, igniting strong criticism from veterans, politicians and others who objected to it being ranked above the Purple Heart and other decorations earned in direct combat. Some even joked the physical award should be a gold-plated Xbox controller.
Hagel canceled the medal in April, soon after he took office, saying it would be replaced by a new device to affix to existing medals. But, he said, “I agree with my predecessor Leon Panetta that such recognition is justly warranted for these men and women.”
Hagel ordered the award criteria and design be delivered within 90 days, but more than nine months later, no design has been made public.
A spokesman for Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who introduced legislation last year to rank the proposed medal below the Purple Heart, said the congressman strongly supports Hagel’s review. Hunter, a veteran of both the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, thinks combat veterans of those wars have yet to receive proper recognition for many of their heroic actions.
“You have all these valor awards that have been downgraded over the course of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Joe Kasper, Hunter’s deputy chief of staff. “There seemed to be a deliberate effort to downplay these acts of valor, and meanwhile, there was the push to highlight drone operations.”
Servicemembers who make a difference on the battlefield from remote locations deserve recognition, said Joe Davis, public affairs director for the VFW Washington office. But he said Hagel’s review should affirm that troops risking life and limb have earned the greatest distinction.
“We are all for proper recognition,” Davis said. “And we believe in protecting the rank order of those medals that can only be earned in a combat zone, and keeping them at their higher precedence.”