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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.
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. (Department of Defense)

WASHINGTON — The so-called “drone medal” is no more.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Monday he would follow the advice of a review overseen by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey and replace the medal intended to recognize drone operators and cyber warriors with a “new distinguishing device that can be affixed to existing medals to recognize the extraordinary actions of this small number of men and women.”

The Distinguished Warfare Medal, announced in February by then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, created a firestorm of controversy when it was ranked above some that require servicemembers to risk life and limb to be eligible, such as the Purple Heart and Bronze Star, which are frequently rewarded for valor in combat.

Legislators and veterans groups derided the medal, and it also was mocked by some in the ranks, who suggested the award could be a gold-plated Xbox controller, among other things.

The medal “undermines all other valor awards,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who introduced legislation to rank the medal below the Purple Heart. Veterans of Foreign Wars National Commander John E. Hamilton meanwhile said “medals that can only be earned in direct combat must mean more than medals awarded in the rear.”

Hagel last month ordered Dempsey to lead a review of the medal. The result is that combat medals will continue to be awarded only to those who risk all, he wrote in a memo to military leaders.

“Utilizing a distinguishing device to recognize impacts on combat operations reserves our existing combat medals for those Service members who incur the physical risk and hardship of combat, perform valorous acts, are wounded in combat, or as a result of combat give their last full measure for our Nation,” Hagel said in a letter dated Monday.

In an earlier letter to veterans organizations sent prior to his ordering of the review, Hagel said it was important to recognize the changing face of warfare with the new medal.

“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.

Veterans groups applauded Hagel’s decision.

“The VFW is appreciative of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for their review, and commends Secretary Hagel for taking this issue on so early in his tenure,” said VFW’s Hamilton. “This decision will clearly keep medals that can only be earned in combat in their high order of precedence, while providing proper recognition to all who support our warfighters regardless of their distance from the fight.”

American Legion National Commander James E. Koutz said replacing the medal with a device puts the valuable contributions of drone operators and cyber warriors in the proper perspective.

“Cyber and drone warfare have become part of the equation for 21st-century warfare, and those who fight such battles with distinction certainly deserve to be recognized,” he said. “But The American Legion still believes there’s a fundamental difference between those who fight remotely, or via computer, and those fighting against an enemy who is trying to kill them.”

Defense leaders and veterans organizations will confer on the nature of the new device, as well as “a clear definition of the eligibility criteria for award of the device,” Hagel said.

Hagel said he wanted the design and criteria for the new device to review within 90 days. Twitter: @ChrisCarroll_


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