Pentagon cancels divisive Distinguished Warfare Medal for cyber ops, drone strikes

The special medal for the Pentagon’s drone operators and cyberwarriors didn’t last long.

Two months after the military rolled out the Distinguished Warfare Medal for troops who don’t set foot on the battlefield, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has concluded it was a bad idea. Some veterans and some lawmakers spoke out against the award, arguing that it was unfair to make the medal a higher honor than some issued for valor on the battlefield.

The controversy echoed a broader debate over defense policy, irking those who feel uneasy about the extent to which remote-controlled aircraft have become the tip of America’s spear in the war against extremists abroad.

After ordering a review of a policy that was one of his predecessor’s last official moves, Hagel said Monday that he concluded no such medal was needed. Instead, he said, a “device” will be affixed to existing medals to recognize those who fly and operate drones, whom he described as “critical to our military’s mission of safeguarding the nation.”

Devices are used by the Pentagon to add a specific form of additional recognition when troops are lauded for exceptional performance.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars, one of the groups that had been critical of the medal, praised Hagel for promptly taking on the issue.

“This decision will clearly keep medals that can only be earned in combat in their high order of precedence, while providing proper recognition to all who support our warfighters regardless of their distance from the fight,” John E. Hamilton, the head of the veterans’ group, said in a statement.

Former Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta announced the award on Feb. 13, one of his lasts days in office, saying that the evolution of combat warranted a new inclusion for men and women who perform game-changing acts remotely.

“Our military reserves its highest decorations obviously for those who display gallantry and valor in actions when their lives are on the line and we will continue to do so,” he said at the time. “But we should also have the ability to honor the extraordinary actions that make a true difference in combat operations.”

The Pentagon said no service members had been nominated for the new medal.

Ernesto Londoño covers the Pentagon for the Washington Post.
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