Distinguished Warfare Medal for drone pilots criticized by lawmakers
WASHINGTON — Troops operating war machines thousands of miles from combat zones now will be eligible for a Distinguished Warfare Medal, an honor higher than the Purple Heart or the Bronze Star.
Lawmakers including Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey and Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, have a problem with that and are pressing for a change in the rank of the new medal, which is designed to honor "extraordinary actions" of drone pilots and other off-site troops.
Mr. Murphy is co-sponsoring a House bill addressing the issue, and Mr. Toomey has urged a change in a letter to the Pentagon.
"A medal for someone who sits far from the battlefield and operates a remote control panel thousands of miles from the battlefield should not have that medal ranked above the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart," Mr. Murphy said Monday. "Literally, you could be sitting in a mock-up of an airplane thousands of miles away from battle and at the end of the day you go home. It's not the same" as being deployed to a war zone. Many drone operations are run out of Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, where pilots operate the unmanned aircraft flying more than 7,000 miles away.
Mr. Murphy's comments came after a full day evaluating patients with traumatic brain injuries at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where he works as a psychologist in his role as a Navy Reservist.
"When I see someone who has served their country and has given their legs and arms or eyes in a combat scenario, it's a reminder to me that those are incidents of valor" that deserve higher recognition than achievements operating drones, Mr. Murphy said.
Mr. Toomey explained his opposition to constituents in a recent newsletter.
"The new Distinguished Warfare Medal will be awarded to pilots of unmanned aircraft, cyber war experts and personnel involved in combat operations who are neither physically present nor in a war zone facing risks of traditional service participants," Mr. Toomey wrote to constituents.
Meanwhile, in a letter to the Pentagon, he asked then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta why the medal is ranked so high.
"While fully supporting appropriate recognition for all military personnel whose extraordinary actions make a difference in combat operations, I am concerned about the new medal's possible ranking," he wrote.
His letter was prompted by concerns of constituents including Philadelphian Joe Eastman, a retired Navy lieutenant who is now director of the Broad Street Ministry, which helps homeless veterans.
Mr. Eastman doesn't begrudge the award, only its prestige.
"If a military member does something above and beyond, there should be some sort of recognition ... but putting this particular award in the pecking order above the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star is not right," he said.
He received a Meritorious Medal himself for his administration of a program at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He's proud of the award but said he would have been embarrassed if he had received higher recognition than fellow servicemen who were injured during acts of heroism.
Several noncombat medals already outrank the Purple Heart. The Soldier's Medal, Navy and Marine Corps Medal, Airman's Medal and Coast Guard Medal, for example, rank just above the Bronze Star.
Mr. Murphy said those awards are different from the Distinguished Warfare Medal because they involve acts of heroism.
American Legion spokesman Marty Callaghan declined to comment on the ranking of other noncombat medals but said his veterans service organization opposes the ranking of the new medal.
The medal is meant to be awarded in rare circumstances and truly exceptional achievements that impact combat but do not involve valor, said Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christiansen, a spokesman for the Department of Defense.
The Department of Defense announced the creation of the Distinguished Warfare Medal last month to reward achievements in new kinds of technological warfare.
Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said the medal recognizes the changing character of warfare.
Cmdr. Christiansen said the technological advances have dramatically changed how the Pentagon conducts and supports combat and other military operations.
The medal hasn't been minted and no names of potential recipients have emerged yet. Military leaders in each branch are still working on the criteria for the award, Mr. Christiansen said.
Mr. Murphy, who is still gathering co-sponsorship signatures for his bill, said he didn't know when or whether it would come to a vote.