WASHINGTON — New Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is standing by the Pentagon’s decision to rank the new Distinguished Warfare Medal higher than the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

The medal is intended to recognize the actions of drone operators who might be thousands of miles from a given conflict.

In a posting on his website Monday, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., said he was disappointed by the decision.

“While I fully support appropriate recognition of all military personnel whose extraordinary actions make a difference in combat operations,” Toomey wrote, “I am concerned about this decision and the new medal’s ranking in DOD’s order of precedence. Pennsylvania’s veterans and others have told me of their concerns with ranking the new medal above some combat valor medals, such as the Bronze Star Medal with valor device.”

Toomey had written a letter asking for clarification from Leon Panetta, who was secretary of defense at the time. The response came from Panetta’s successor in a letter dated Thursday, Hagel’s eighth day on the job.

Hagel’s office sent the same letter to the commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, the commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C.

Hagel wrote that he had discussed the medal with the service chiefs and accepted their opinion that the award is at the appropriate level.

“Since Sept. 11, 2001, technological advancements have, in some cases dramatically changed how we conduct and support combat and other military operations. Accordingly the [Distinguished Warfare Medal] award criteria intentionally does not include a geographic limitation on the award, as it is intended for use as a means to recognize all servicemembers who meet the criteria, regardless of the domain used or the member’s physical location,” Hagel wrote.

The award is meant to reward a single extraordinary act that affects combat, Hagel wrote.

“It recognizes a specific type of contribution that is vital to the defense of our nation. It in no way degrades or minimizes our nation’s other important awards or the tremendous sacrifices of our men and women who earn these prestigious recognitions,” he wrote.

Other noncombat medals already rank higher than the Bronze Star, which usually recognizes valor, he pointed out. The Medal of Honor, Service Crosses and Silver Star, which are awarded solely for heroism in combat, remain higher in prestige than the new warfare medal, Hagel noted.

The decision created a firestorm among veterans groups and on the Internet.

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

Officials from the VFW 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.

Organizers at have collected more than 5,000 responses to the medal — most complaining about its position above the Bronze Star — and that they intended to petition Hagel, a former enlisted soldier and a Purple Heart recipient, for a change. Twitter: @StripesDCchief

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