More than two years ago, then-Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta announced the creation of the Distinguished Warfare Medal, a new military decoration that would honor service members flying drones in combat. Controversially, the new award would have been ranked higher than the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star with “V,” both awards earned in the throes of combat.
The plan was eventually scrapped by Panetta’s successor, Chuck Hagel, who called for a broad review to assess how well the military honors valor on the battlefield. That effort is now in its final phases, with current Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter expected to receive recommendations soon.
“We anticipate the department will make announcements of the results of the review later this summer,” said Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman.
The year-long review is expected to assess if the awards program provides equal recognition for different troops who perform similar acts of valor, determine whether it motivates others to perform heroically, and again take on the issue of how drone operators and others who influence the battlefield from afar should be recognized.
It also will review how the awards process has changed since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began and look for ways to improve it, Christensen said.
The review came after years of criticism in the military that the services do not always appropriately award service members for their heroism. As noted in this Washington Post story last July, that often manifests itself in frustration about the relatively small number of Medals of Honor that have been awarded to modern veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.
To date, 16 veterans of modern conflicts have received the nation’s highest award for valor. President George W. Bush awarded five, all posthumously, while President Obama has awarded 11. By comparison, hundreds each were awarded for actions during World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
The number of recent awards ceremonies for veterans whose heroism went overlooked or undervalued in previous conflicts for decades also has raised questions whether more modern cases might need attention and review. In the most recent cases, Sgts. William Shemin and Henry Johnson posthumously received the Medal of Honor on Tuesday for valor during World War I, 97 years after their actions.
This week, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody, the service’s top enlisted member, indicated on the online forum Reddit that the Air Force is in the process of reviewing some previously awarded medals to make sure airmen have been appropriately recognized for their actions.
The concern stretches beyond just the Medal of Honor to other less prestigious, but highly respected awards. And it dates back years at this point.
“Some commands are afraid to issue awards like candy, and take away the meaning of the award,” wrote one soldier in a 2006 academic paper for the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy. “This fear of being the candy man brings a higher standard to the award requirements. What might have earned the Medal of Honor in World War II, might only earn a Silver Star in today’s [Global War on Terror].”