Hagel scraps medal for drone pilots

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has cancelled a new medal for drone pilots that had been panned by lawmakers and veterans groups for being ranked above medals that were awarded to troops who saw combat.

Hagel said Monday that the Pentagon would replace the Distinguished Warfare Medal with a device that would be attached to existing medals in order to recognize the achievements of drone pilots and cyber warriors.

“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 wrote in a memorandum Monday.

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Hagel’s decision to abandon the drone medal, which was created in February by former secretary Leon Panetta, comes after widespread criticism from lawmakers and veterans groups.

The groups were angry that the Distinguished Warfare Medal was being ranked above traditional valor medals like the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

They argued that the drone medal should not be ranked higher when its recipients are thousands of miles from the battlefield.

Lawmakers who had clamored for reducing the rank of the medal praised Hagel for the decision Monday.

"I applaud Secretary Hagel's decision and his willingness to listen to the widespread concerns of veterans across the nation," Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), said in a statement. "Today's announcement helps ensure that our highest and most sacred military awards are reserved for those who risk their lives in combat."

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), who asked Hagel about the medal when Hagel testified before the House Armed Services Committee last week, said he was “proud that the secretary sided with the best interests of our brave men and women in the armed services who have served in combat.”

When the Pentagon announced the new medal in February, Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said it was designed to honor extraordinary actions in a changing war environment.

“This new medal recognizes the changing character of warfare and those who make extraordinary contributions to it,” Dempsey said in a statement at the time.

Hagel called for a review of the medal by the Joint Chiefs and service secretaries shortly after he was confirmed. He said Monday that the Joint Chiefs had recommended the creation of the new device to replace the DWM.

“The medal was originally conceived to be awarded only to those men and women who, while serving off the battlefield, have an extraordinary impact on combat operations,” Hagel said. “While the review confirmed the need to ensure such recognition, it found that misconceptions regarding the precedence of the award were distracting from its original purpose.”