Hagel orders halt to production of drone pilot, cyberwarrior medal

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has ordered the military to stop production of a controversial new medal pending a 30-day study of whether the award for drone pilots and cyberwarriors should outrank medals given for battlefield bravery.

Pentagon spokesman George Little said that Hagel was particularly attuned to the concerns of veterans organizations, which have complained that the Distinguished Warfare Medal was ranked above the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart in the military’s order of precedence.

Hagel, who received two Purple Hearts as an enlisted soldier in Vietnam, has a long history with the veterans groups, Little said. “He’s been a member of one. He headed the USO. He’s heard their concerns.”

Little also confirmed that Hagel has ordered two separate internal reviews of a case involving an Air Force general who last month overturned a military jury’s sexual assault conviction of a fighter pilot.

The secretary of the Air Force and the Defense Department’s legal counsel will review the decision by Lt. Gen. Craig A. Franklin, commander of the Third Air Force in Europe, who tossed out the conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson without explanation, Little said. Results are due March 20.

The general counsel will also assess by March 27 whether the Uniform Code of Military Justice — the authority that allowed Franklin’s action — needs to be changed. Little said defense lawyers have not yet determined whether any changes in the code, established by Congress but administered by the president, would require additional legislation.

The case has become the focus of long-standing criticism by some lawmakers that the military does not take the problem of sexual harassment seriously.

Top Pentagon lawyers are due to testify Wednesday at a hearing on the issue before the personnel subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “I’m going to stay at this until we, hopefully, get a piece of justice for a whole lot of women out there that, frankly, many of whom are just afraid to even come forward because of the way this crime has traditionally been treated within the military,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said Tuesday on MSNBC.

A letter from committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and James M. Inhofe (Okla.), the panel’s ranking Republican, asking for reconsideration of the warfare medal was on Hagel’s desk when he returned Monday from a trip to Afghanistan.

While they were “supportive of the new medal,” the senators wrote that they were concerned “that it is given precedence above awards earned by service members for actions on the battlefield.” Drone pilots and cyberwarriors generally operate in the United States.

Little said that Hagel has placed Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in charge of that review, to be completed within 30 days.

“The fact of the matter is that production of the medal has stopped,” Little said. “No one has been nominated for this medal. No one is in training for this medal. So we do have time to make a final decision.”

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