WASHINGTON -- A new medal that would honor drone pilots and cyber warriors and outrank battlefield combat medals such as the Purple Heart and Bronze Star is facing backlash from veterans organizations and members of Congress, with a bipartisan group of 22 senators pressing the Pentagon to change the designation.
The newly created Distinguished Warfare Medal, approved last month by then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, will honor members of the military for achievements beyond the battlefield since Sept. 11, 2001.
The backlash to the medal centers around the fact that it will take precedence over traditional several combat awards, which require that the recipient risk his or her life in order to receive them.
On Friday, 22 senators wrote to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and expressed their concerns.
"We believe that medals earned in combat, or in dangerous conditions, should maintain their precedence above non-combat awards," wrote the senators. "Placing the Distinguished Warfare Medal above the Bronze Star and Purple Heart diminishes the significance of awards earned by risking one's life in direct combat or through acts of heroism. Moreover, the Distinguished Warfare Medal's placement directly above the Soldier’s Medal -- an award for bravery and voluntary risk of life not involving conflict with an armed enemy -- diminishes the precedence given to acts of individual gallantry in circumstances other than combat."
The senators who signed the letter are Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), John Boozman (R-Ark.), Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), Angus King (I-Maine), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).
Boozman, Heller, Manchin and Tester also recently introduced legislation that would prevent the Distinguished Warfare Medal from outranking direct combat awards. Republican lawmakers have a similar bill in the House of Representatives, and a bipartisan group of 48 House members have also written to Hagel.
The award has also prompted protest from veterans groups. The American Legion urged its members to complain to lawmakers, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars wrote to Hagel.
VoteVets.org Co-Founder Jon Soltz recently argued that Hagel may better understand the importance of keeping the Purple Heart and Bronze Star above the Distinguished Warfare Medal because of his experience in Vietnam.
"This isn't a knock on Leon Panetta, but unlike Chuck Hagel, Panetta was never a grunt, an enlisted man," wrote Soltz. "In Hagel, we have someone who brings that unique experience to the table. In fact, he'd be the first enlisted man ever to serve as Secretary of Defense. Of course, in addition to that, Senator Hagel was awarded two Purple Hearts, so he knows full well the kind of sacrifice it takes to be awarded that medal."
The Pentagon did not return a request for comment, but spokesman George Little told the Associated Press in late February, "The Defense Department remains committed to honoring the remotely piloted aircraft operators and the cyber warriors as appropriate. This is recognition of their significant contributions and the changing nature of warfare."
When he announced the creation of the award in February, Panetta said "remotely piloted platforms and cyber systems" have "changed the way wars are fought."
The Associated Press also noted that the new award may be handed out without the public ever knowing about it because the actions taken by the recipients may be classified.
UPDATE: 5:30 p.m. -- Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Ranking Member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) have also sent Hagel a letter, protesting the medal's precedence over other combat awards. The letter, as sent out by Levin's office on Monday afternoon:
March 7, 2013
The Honorable Charles T. Hagel
Secretary of Defense
1000 Defense Pentagon
Washington, DC 20301-1000
Dear Secretary Hagel:
We are writing to ask you to reconsider the level-of-precedence of the Distinguished Warfare Medal (DWM) established by Secretary Panetta on February 13, 2013. Although we are supportive of this new medal, we are concerned that it is given precedence above awards earned by service members for actions on the battlefield, such as the Bronze Star Medal and Purple Heart.
The Air Medal was created, in 1942, to raise the morale of airmen. This caused a strong adverse reaction by the ground troops, particularly the infantry riflemen who suffered the heaviest losses and endured the greatest hardships. In response, General of the Army George Marshall recommended that the President establish the Bronze Star Medal, citing the hardships borne by ground troops who bravely “lead miserable lives of extreme discomfort and are the ones who must close in personal combat with the enemy.” President Roosevelt authorized the Bronze Star Medal in February 1944 to recognize servicemembers who distinguish themselves by heroic or meritorious achievement or service, not involving participation in aerial flight, in connection with military or naval operations against an enemy of the United States.
Placing the DWM on the list of precedence above the Bronze Star Medal is likely to cause the same type of adverse impact to morale that was recognized by General Marshall almost seventy years ago. Like so many of the veterans groups who have expressed their displeasure with this recent announcement, we are very concerned about the message that this decision sends to those brave veterans of our Nation’s wars since 1941 whose heroism and meritorious service has been recognized by the Bronze Star Medal.
Mr. Secretary, we trust that the judgment you gained from your combat experience as an enlisted soldier in Vietnam will inform your decision about the appropriate precedence of the DWM in relation to the Bronze Star Medal and the Purple Heart. We look forward to hearing from you on this important matter.
Carl Levin, Chairman
James M. Inhofe, Ranking Member
CORRECTION: This story originally identified Sen. Mark Begich as being from Arkansas. He represents Alaska. Due to an error in a press release, the story also originally stated that Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado had signed the letter, when in fact it was his cousin, Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico.