“Drone Pilot Medal” Goes Down in Flames

The Secretary of Defense has abandoned his earlier defense of the Distinguished Warfare Medal and its placement above the Purple Heart and Bronze Star Medal in the order of precedence. In a memo released on April 15th, Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that he was adopting the recommendations of the Joint Chiefs that the Pentagon scrap the Distinguished Warfare Medal as a separate, stand-alone decoration. Instead, the Department will create a device, similar to the “V” device or oak leaf cluster, that can be attached to an existing ribbon, such as an Army Commendation Medal or Meritorious Service Medal.

“I agree with the Joint Chiefs’ findings, and have directed the creation of a distinguishing device instead of a separate medal,” Hagel said in the release. “The servicemen and women who operate and support our remotely piloted aircraft, operate in cyber, and others are critical to our military’s mission of safeguarding the nation.” The distinguishing devices will serve to recognize these service members’ achievements, he said.

DOD announced the creation of the Distinguished Warfare Medal Feb. 13, 2013. The Defense Department’s intent was to recognize those who had made significant contributions to success on the battlefield, or in the fields of intelligence and cyber-warfare, but who were not present on the battlefield themselves. The news was met with widespread revision and opposition by veterans groups, however, including the Military Order of the Purple Heart and Veterans of Foreign Wars. The opposition of these two groups reflected widespread contempt within the ranks for this medal, which would have given drone pilots operating from air-conditioned facilities in Tampa a higher award than troops wounded or cited for valor in the very same operations. The Military Order of the Purple Heart called the decision to place the Distinguished Warfare Medal above the Purple Heart and Bronze Star medal in the order of precedence “degrading and insulting.”

The Secretary of Defense also stated that  “misconceptions regarding the precedence of the award were distracting from its original purpose.”

This is hogwash. The problem wasn’t “misconceptions regarding the precedence of the award.” The award’s critics were entirely accurate: The DWM was ranked higher than the Bronze Star Medal and Purple Heart on the order of precedence. The Secretary is blaming the critics and the troops for the poor judgment of the senior Pentagon officials who created the award. In a public release in March, Representative Duncan Hunter (R-CA) wrote that “Reordering the precedence of the DWM is a simple fix, but there will need to be some willingness on the part of decision makers within the Pentagon to admit this was a bad idea,” said Representative Hunter.

If the Secretary is still blaming the award’s critics for their (accurate) “misconceptions,” that hasn’t quite sunk in. Indeed, that’s an alarming bit of newspeak on Hagel’s part.

The Pentagon had actually begun the expensive process of manufacturing the medals in March, just as sequestration was putting a crimp on operational, spare parts and training budgets. However, the Pentagon canceled their orders after the decision was made to put the medal up for review. It is not clear how much money the government spent on developing, designing and manufacturing the aborted medal.


Next Steps 

The undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness will develop the award criteria for the device in close coordination with the services and the Joint Staff, officials said.

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