Lawmakers ask Hagel to demote drone medal

It’s not looking good for the new Golden X-box Controller award for drone pilots. Four dozen members of Congress have joined a growing chorus of critics asking Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to demote the rank of the Pentagon’s new Distinguished Warfare Medal. The medal, announced last month, is intended to recognize troops who contribute to ...

ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images
ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images
ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

It’s not looking good for the new Golden X-box Controller award for drone pilots.

Four dozen members of Congress have joined a growing chorus of critics asking Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to demote the rank of the Pentagon’s new Distinguished Warfare Medal.

The medal, announced last month, is intended to recognize troops who contribute to the war on terrorism but who are not in the line of fire.

It’s not looking good for the new Golden X-box Controller award for drone pilots.

Four dozen members of Congress have joined a growing chorus of critics asking Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to demote the rank of the Pentagon’s new Distinguished Warfare Medal.

The medal, announced last month, is intended to recognize troops who contribute to the war on terrorism but who are not in the line of fire.

The problem, according to a growing number of veterans groups, lawmakers, and outraged military-philes, is that among the pecking order of service medals, the Pentagon has decided to rank the new drone medal directly below the Distinguished Flying Cross, making it the seventh-highest ranking medal, far higher than the lowest-ranking combat medals awarded to troops who actually put their lives on the line, including the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, for those wounded in action.

“We lessen the direct-combat recognitions of the Purple Heart and Bronze Star by giving the DWM higher precedence,” said Rep. Susan Davis (D-CA), ranking member of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel, in a statement on Tuesday. “Secretary Hagel should take a hard look at this and make an adjustment in precedence.”

Pentagon press secretary George Little and Col. Steve Warren, DOD press operations director, already have acknowledged that the Pentagon is hearing the complaints, but insist a lot of thinking went into where to rank the medal. To get the medal requires the approval of a service secretary, a very high requirement that they say means the drone warfare award won’t be handed out lightly.

“Medals that they otherwise might be eligible for simply did not recognize that kind of contribution,” said former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, last month.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey said, at the time, the award would be “highly selective and reflect high standards.”

As of last week, no service members had yet been nominated to receive one. But a real toll of warfare has been documented for remote control pilots who get to go home to their families at the end of their workday — sometimes after killing people on a battlefield thousands of miles away.

One former aide to Panetta defended the decision, speaking anonymously because the topic involves classified opertaions, telling the E-Ring, "The medal’s placement was the unanimous recommendation to Secretary Panetta by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and rightly reflects the extraordinary contribution to combat – both in eliminating the enemy and providing over watch to our forces – that our operators provide in emerging areas of technology. If you could hear the stories about what these guys have done to keep Americans safe, you wouldn’t question the decision."

The lawmakers of this week’s sign-on letter say they applaud the intent of the medal, just not its placement among other medals. They call it “a disservice to Purple Heart recipients.” To receive Bronze Star, they note, a service member is required to be serving in “an imminent danger area. No such requirement exist for the DWM.”

Drones over Afghanistan are piloted by remote operators sitting in control modules located as far away as Nevada.

The March 4 letter is signed by several notable House Armed Services Committee leaders, including Reps. Randy Forbes (R-VA), chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee; Joe Wilson (R-SC), chairman of the Military Personnel subcommittee; Mike Turner (R-OH), chairman of the Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee; and Tammy Duckworth (D-WI), an Iraq veteran combat helicopter pilot and double amputee from her war wounds.

Kevin Baron is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy, covering defense and military issues in Washington. He is also vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. Baron previously was a national security staff writer for National Journal, covering the "business of war." Prior to that, Baron worked in the resident daily Pentagon press corps as a reporter/photographer for Stars and Stripes. For three years with Stripes, Baron covered the building and traveled overseas extensively with the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, covering official visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, in more than a dozen countries. From 2004 to 2009, Baron was the Boston Globe Washington bureau's investigative projects reporter, covering defense, international affairs, lobbying and other issues. Before that, he muckraked at the Center for Public Integrity. Baron has reported on assignment from Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the South Pacific. He was won two Polk Awards, among other honors. He has a B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond and M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University. Originally from Orlando, Fla., Baron has lived in the Washington area since 1998 and currently resides in Northern Virginia with his wife, three sons, and the family dog, The Edge. Twitter: @FPBaron

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