WASHINGTON (AP) — In the face of withering criticism, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has canceled the creation of a new military medal for drone and cyber warriors, instead ordering military leaders to develop a special pin or device that would be attached to already existing medals or ribbons.
Hagel's predecessor, Leon Panetta, created the Distinguished Warfare Medal to be awarded to troops such as drone operators and cyber warriors who have a major effect on a military operation but never actually set foot in the combat zone. That decision triggered broad complaints from veterans and lawmakers who said it should not be ranked higher than traditional combat medals such as the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
On Monday Hagel said that while the department should recognize the extraordinary achievements of those troops, the award should not be a stand-alone medal.
When Panetta announced the medal would be created in mid-February, defense officials said it would be considered a bit higher in ranking than the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, but lower than the Silver Star. But the Veterans of Foreign Wars and other groups sent a letter to President Barack Obama in March, asking him to keep the medal ranked below the Purple Heart, which is awarded for combat injuries. Critics said the ranking was an injustice to those troops who risked their lives in battle.
Last month, under orders from Hagel, the military stopped production of the medal and top defense and military leaders began a new review. Hagel asked Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to report back to him in 30 days.
Hagel — who was twice awarded the Purple Heart for his service in Vietnam — said that the review concluded that "misconceptions regarding the precedence of the award were distracting from its original purpose."
Senior military leaders who conducted the study recommended the creation of a device, similar to the "V'' for valor that can be attached to the Bronze Star and other medals to reward an act of heroism. They have 90 days to finalize details and criteria for the award.
Panetta, in creating the new medal, said it reflected battlefield contributions in a world of changing warfare. He said that remotely piloted aircraft and cyber systems have changed the way that wars are fought and can change the course of a conflict from afar.
In a statement on Monday, Hagel agreed with the idea behind the initial recognition.
"The servicemen and women who operate and support our remotely piloted aircraft, operate in cyber and others are critical to our military's mission of safeguarding the nation," he said.
The American Legion's national commander, James E. Koutz, said Hagel's decision keeps the evolving roles of military combat in proper perspective.
"Cyber and drone warfare have become part of the equation for 21st-century combat, and those who fight such battles with distinction certainly deserve to be recognized," Koutz said in a statement. "But the American Legion still believes there's a fundamental difference between those who fight remotely, or via computer, and those fighting against an enemy who is trying to kill them."
As originally conceived, the blue, red and white-ribboned medal was to be awarded to individuals for "extraordinary achievement" related to a military operation that occurred after Sept. 11, 2001. But it does not require the recipient to risk his or her life to get it.
Over the last decade of war, remotely piloted Predator and Reaper drones have become a critical weapon to gather intelligence and conduct airstrikes against terrorists or insurgents around the world. They have been used extensively on the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and northern Africa.
Over the same time, cyberattacks have become a growing national security threat, with Panetta and others warning that the next Pearl Harbor could well be a computer-based assault.
The Bronze Star is the fourth-highest combat decoration and rewards meritorious service in battle, while the Silver Star is the third-highest combat award given for bravery. The Purple Heart is ranked just below the Bronze Star.
Several other awards, including the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, are also ranked higher than the Silver Star, but are not awarded for combat.
In addition to veterans' concerns, there is a practical side to the rankings for currently serving troops. There are grades of medals — commendation, merit, distinguished — that affect promotions for those still in uniform. Each grade gives troops a certain number of points needed for promotions.
Associated Press writer Donna Cassata contributed to this report.
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