DOD defends new combat medal for drone pilots, cyber warriors

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last Wednesday unveiled the new Distinguished Warfare Medal, awarded solely to U.S. service members involved in unmanned aerial drone and cyber warfare operations. 


In the hierarchy of combat commendations, the new award will fall between the Silver Star and Bronze Star, the third- and fourth-highest U.S. military honor available to American service personnel, and above the Purple Heart. 

While those members of the military usually serve far from harm's way, their impact on the battlefield is a harbinger of the new age in modern warfare, Panetta said at the time. 

However, a number of veterans groups have criticized the award's prestigious placement within the Pentagon's slate of military honors, urging DOD to reevaluate the medal's placement. 

"Medals that can only be earned in direct combat must mean more than medals awarded in the rear," John Hamilton, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said in a statement last Thursday. 

While the VFW "fully concurs" with the notion that rear echelon forces can have a significant impact in combat, particularly in the areas of unmanned drones and cyber warfare, Hamilton said that recognition comes at the expense of front line troops directly engaged with the enemy. 

Putting those drone pilots and cyber warriors on par with ground infantry units or air combat squadrons "could quickly deteriorate into a morale issue" within the services, he continued. 

On Tuesday, DOD defended the medal and the exploits of those service members that warrant such high recognition within the Pentagon and armed services. 

"We are not diminishing at all the importance of the Bronze Star — that remains an important award for our combat troops and will remain so," DOD press secretary George Little told reporters during a briefing at the Pentagon. 

Pentagon spokesman Lt. Steve Warren noted the decision to award the medal would fall to the service chiefs of the individual armed services, which is a much higher bar for approval compared to other battlefield commendations. 

"We expect this award to be granted pretty rarely, and that factored in to the decision [on its precedence]," Little said. 

While there are no current candidates for the award, its creation "simply recognizes ... the contributions of all those who contributed" to ongoing and future U.S. combat operations worldwide, Warren said. 

As a Bronze Star recipient, Warren added that he was personally "very comfortable" with the new award's status among current combat citations.