Pentagon set to announce awards for combat, drone service

AP News
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Posted: Jan 06, 2016 6:13 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Pentagon is creating awards to recognize drone pilots and cyber warriors who have a direct impact on battle, and troops who excel in combat, as part of a broad review of how the military services bestow medals after nearly 15 years of war, defense officials said Wednesday.

The department also will review the Silver Star and Service Cross nominations for troops during the recent Afghanistan and Iraq wars, to ensure service members eventually got the right medal. While officials said that there has been no indication troops were given awards inappropriately, trends show that commanders increasingly approved higher awards as the wars dragged on.

As a result, some officials worried that earlier recipients of the Silver Star and Service Cross medals may have been eligible for the more prestigious Medal of Honor.

Defense officials on Wednesday said a key goal in the review was to make sure that all the military services had the same standards for valor and combat awards, and that troops received the medals they deserved, particularly those who risked their lives in combat.

There has been broad criticism in recent years over how medals are awarded, including differences between the various military services on the qualifications for the medals or the criteria that determine valor or heroism. A move in 2013 by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to create a medal for drone pilots and cyberwarriors triggered such a big backlash that his successor, Chuck Hagel, shelved the idea and ordered reviews of the award systems.

Panetta had tried to create an award for service members who contribute to the fight from outside the combat zone. But veterans' groups were irate when the proposal ranked the award a bit higher than the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.

Under the new Pentagon proposal, there will be an "R'' device, which would be a quarter-inch bronze letter "R'' much like the "V'' device that troops get for valor. That "R'' could be attached to a noncombat ribbon for service members who conduct drone operations from afar that have a direct impact on combat. It also could be awarded to troops involved in cyber warfare or other futuristic battle techniques that have a "hands-on, immediate and direct" impact on a specific combat operation.

A second new award would be the "C'' device, which also could be attached to other awards or ribbons. That "C'' would be given to troops in recognition of "meritorious service under combat conditions."

Often military members receive ribbons for serving in the war zone — for example, in Iraq or Afghanistan — but many of them never see combat. The "C'' device would give additional recognition to those who served in those conflicts and were actually in combat.

The defense officials said that recognizing those who actually risked their lives in combat was one of the issues that came up during the 37 focus group meetings with active duty, National Guard and Reserve members over the past 18 months. The troops also said that getting the award recognition in a more timely manner was important.

The review of the Silver Star and the various Service Cross medal nominations will affect as many as 1,100 military members. Officials said no one would have their medal taken away. But, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps will have until September 2017 to review the awards to make sure the service members got the right medal.

Congress members and others raised questions in 2010 about the low number of Medals of Honor that had been awarded during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars -- conflicts that saw thousands of Americans killed and tens of thousands injured. The first 10 Medals of Honor were given to troops killed in combat.

Officials said there seemed to be a misperception that in order to get the military's highest award, a service member had to be killed or injured. But after a study was done in 2010, the Pentagon made it clear that it was not necessary to be injured or killed to qualify for the award. After that, the next seven Medals of Honor were awarded to living recipients. Three of those were initially considered for a Service Cross, but were upgraded to the Medal of Honor.

Those trends, said officials, helped spur the plan to review the previous awards to ensure they were appropriate.

The Pentagon plans to announce the changes Thursday. It will take up to a year to implement them.

The officials weren't authorized to publicly discuss the changes ahead of the announcement and spoke on condition of anonymity.