Not-So-Heavy Medal

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So, take your pick: is drone warfare worthy of its own non-battlefield decoration that outranks the Bronze Star and Purple Heart?

After a two-month tempest in a canteen, the new defense secretary knocked down his predecessor’s order to do just that.

Kind of makes sense. Former defense secretary Leon Panetta had served as an Army intelligence officer from 1964-1966, but didn’t serve in Vietnam. His successor, Chuck Hagel, did, in 1967-68 – and earned two Purple Hearts to (combat) boot.

Two weeks before leaving office in February, Panetta – with the endorsement of Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – announced the creation of the Distinguished Warfare Medal.

“I have seen first-hand how modern tools like remotely piloted platforms and cyber systems have changed the way wars can be fought,” Panetta said. “We should also have the ability to honor extraordinary actions that make a true difference in combat operations, even if those actions are physically removed from the fight.”

Dempsey concurred. “This new medal recognizes the changing character of warfare and those who make extraordinary contributions to it,” he said. “The criteria for this award will be highly selective and reflect high standards.”

Few military types had any issue with recognizing such exploits. But buried in the fine print of Panetta’s five-page order creating the DSM was this deal-killer:

Order of Precedence. The DWM is worn immediately following the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Panetta acknowledged as much. “Given the DWM’s level-of-precedence, immediately below the Distinguished Flying Cross,” he wrote, “the member’s actions must have resulted in an accomplishment so exceptional and outstanding as to clearly set the individual apart from comrades or from other persons in similar situations.”

That placed it above the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, which the U.S. military awards to recognize battlefield bravery and wounds. This didn’t go over well with the troops. (Then again, neither did this part of the fine print associated with the Distinguished Service Medal: “The DWM may be awarded posthumously.”)

‘I spent nearly 26 months of my life and was awarded the Bronze Star, and you are tell me that someone can stay home and receive a higher medal?” one reader posted on the Army Timeswebsite. “Guess these same guys qualify for the Purple Heart if they were to get a paper cut.”

Hagel ordered a review of the medal shortly after taking office. On Monday, the defense secretary — following what he said was Dempsey’s advice — said drone operators and others who wage war far from the battlefield would be eligible for a “new distinguishing device that can be affixed to existing medals to recognize the extraordinary actions of this small number of men and women.”

Creating such a piggyback honor “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’s one-page memo said.

Hagel added that he launched his review of the new medal following complaints from veterans’ organizations and lawmakers about the “order of precedence” of the DWM. “While the review confirmed the need to ensure such recognition,” Hagel’s memo added, “it found that misconceptions regarding the precedence of the award were distracting from its original purpose.”

Not quite sure what Hagel means by “misconception” here.

It seems the vets conceived correctly that the new medal would outrank traditional battlefield ribbons, and they were upset. The only misperception seems to have been by Panetta and Dempsey, who apparently thought the new medal’s ranking wouldn’t rankle.

But they were wrong. “This memorandum,” the one-time infantry sergeant concluded, “supersedes the memorandum dated February 13, 2013, that announced the creation of the DWM.”

Early reviews were positive. “Secretary Hagel, who has seen combat, smelled the smoke and shed his blood,” one reader posted on the Stars and Stripes website, “made a common- sense decision that honors all that go in a combat zone.”