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Do drone pilots deserve higher medal than combat vets?

Wed, 02/20/2013 - 3:32pm
Jason Lomberg, Technical Editor

Since when did waggling a joystick become more valorous than pulling a trigger?

It hasn’t, you say?

The newly-minted Distinguished Warfare Medal — created to honor cyberwarriors and drone pilots — would rank above the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, and the military community is incensed.

And with good reason.

The Pentagon awards the Purple Heart to servicemembers who are wounded or killed in action (KIA). And for those who don’t know, the Bronze Star criteria note the following:

Awarded to any person who, while serving in any capacity in or with the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, or Coast Guard of the United States, after December 6, 1941, who distinguishes, or has distinguished, himself or herself by heroic (valorous), or meritorious achievement or service, not involving participation in aerial flight, under any of the following circumstances:

1. While engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States.

2. While engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force.

3. While serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party.

Of particular note is the next section (emphasis mine):

(b) In accordance with section 1133 of Reference (f), the recipient must be “a member of the armed forces who is in receipt of special pay pursuant to section 310 of Reference (o) at the time of the events for which the decoration is to be awarded or who receives such pay as a result of those events.”

Essentially, the servicemember must be eligible for imminent-danger pay (i.e., engaged in combat or in a combat zone).

The Distinguished Warfare Medal entails similar criteria, but it also includes the following gem: "may not be awarded for valor in combat under any circumstances." Just so it’s clear: The Distinguished Warfare Medal — which cannot be awarded for valor in combat — will rank ahead of the Purple Heart and Bronze, both of which are combat decorations.

Something doesn’t compute.

Departing U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has opened a can of worms and with the wrong sort of people.

"It’s a boneheaded decision," Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) spokesman Joe Davis told FoxNews.com. "This is going to affect morale and it’s sending troops in the field a horrible message."

And John Hamilton, the VFW’s commander-in-chief, noted that "medals that can only be earned in direct combat must mean more than medals awarded in the rear."

The Military Order of the Purple Heart released a statement which included the following:

"To rank what is basically an award for meritorious service higher than any award for heroism is degrading and insulting to every American Combat Soldier, Airman, Sailor or Marine who risks his or her life and endures the daily rigors of combat in a hostile environment."

The Pentagon attempted to quell the (justifiable) outrage.

"Those furthest from the fight/risk are not eligible for a higher award than those engaging the enemy and risking their lives each day," Defense spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen said. "There are several existing medals that may be awarded to members who incur risk associated with valorous acts (Medal of Honor, Service Crosses, Silver Stars)."

This is a mischaracterization at best. By definition, the Purple Heart is reserved for those who’ve been wounded or killed in combat. And the Bronze Star — awarded for valorous combat actions — ranks below the Distinguished Warfare Medal which, by Panetta’s own admission, recognizes "extraordinary achievements that directly impact on combat operations, but do not involve acts of valor or physical risks that combat entails."

Drone pilots deserve recognition. The nature of warfare has irrevocably changed, and the military at large still relegates cyberwarriors to red-headed stepchild status. Most sources don’t even identify the flying instruments of (unmanned) death by their proper titles — the Air Force prefers Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPV) and the Army Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS).

On the other hand, this entire enterprise reeks of our society’s "participation trophy" mentality, where everyone and anyone deserves recognition, no matter their achievements. As a former Signal Corps Officer (i.e., in the "rear with the gear"), I find it preposterous that someone behind the lines should receive a higher decoration than a combat vet.

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