One month after creating a new medal to honor drone pilots and other soldiers who operate remotely, the Defense Department, under pressure from lawmakers and veterans, is reconsidering the award's rank relative to other combat medals.
The decision is an abrupt reversal for newly confirmed Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who recently said he did not see the need for a review.
So why the about-face?
Hagel's predecessor, Leon Panetta, unveiled the Distinguished Warfare Medal last month, saying it was necessary to address the changing landscape of modern combat. With remote operations — which includes drones as well as cyber-security — steadily taking on a larger role in the military, Panetta said the medal would honor "achievements that directly impact on combat operations, but that do not involve acts of valor or physical risk that combat entails."
However, it wasn't the medal itself that irked critics, but its status in the tiered list of combat medals. It was slated to outrank medals awarded for life-threatening service on the front lines, like the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
Lawmakers from both parties, including the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, criticized the medal's precedence. In a letter to the Defense Department, committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) urged Hagel to reconsider the ranking.
"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," the two wrote.
Citing the strife between military branches caused by the creation of an airmen-only award in the 1940s, the senators warned that elevating an award for non-combat servicemen risked alienating ground troops who put themselves in harm's way.
Veterans organizations assailed the award for the same reason. Over the weekend, the Veterans of Foreign Wars group sent an email blast to its nearly two million members, urging them to contact their elected representatives and press for the review.
"This is a policy disagreement over the placement of the new medal, not whether drone operators, cyber warriors, and others don't deserve to be properly recognized for the tremendous impact they are bringing to the battlefield in real-time," the message read. "The VFW just adamantly believes that medals that can only be earned in combat must rank higher than new medals awarded in the rear."
With pressure mounting, Hagel announced Tuesday that he'd ordered a review to address the concerns.
The military has not issued any of the new medals yet. According to the Associated Press, the production of the medals has been temporarily halted while the review is underway.
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