Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is ordering a review of all military medals and awards. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who earned two Purple Hearts serving as an infantry sergeant in Vietnam, will launch a review of the entire universe of military medals and awards, a Pentagon official said.
The review will expand on an existing effort launched last year amid an internal Pentagon debate over to how recognize drone pilots, cyber warriors and others who in 21st-century warfare may have a direct, critical impact on the battlefield without ever putting themselves at risk of physical harm.
The broader review will “include service members entrusted with the responsibility to operate remote technology to directly impact combat as well as more traditional forms of arms,” the Defense Department’s top spokesman, Rear Adm. John Kirby, said in a statement provided by the Pentagon.
“Having seen combat himself, Secretary Hagel fully understands and respects the traditions that come with awards and decorations. This is a process that will take time and care, but he believes it’s important it’s done right,” Kirby said in the statement.
The review would be completed later this year or in early 2015, he said.
The controversy over the so-called Distinguished Warfare Medal confronted Hagel shortly after he took office nearly a year ago.
His predecessor, Leon Panetta, had signed off on the new medal just days before leaving office in February 2013. The short-lived DWF was the first new combat medal in generations, intended to honor those who fight remotely yet may have a direct and decisive impact on the ground-level fight.
Honoring drone pilots was a fitting issue for Panetta, who headed the CIA at a time when the agency vastly expanded its drone fleet. “This award recognizes the reality of the kind of technological warfare we are engaged in the 21st century,” he said in announcing the medal.
But the medal took incoming fire almost immediately. Many combat veterans derided the idea of rear-echelon troops who fight wars on computer screens qualifying for a medal that in the official “order of precedence” would outrank the Bronze Star, which honors ground troops for specific acts of heroism performed under direct enemy fire.
Just weeks after taking over as defense secretary, Hagel signed an order eliminating the medal. He said drone pilots and cyber warriors were more appropriately honored by a “distinguishing device that can be affixed to existing medals.”
In April, Hagel vowed to formalize the details of the new device, clarify the medals it can be attached to, and designate the top officials who will have authority to approve it. Military officials said that process would be completed in 90 days.
But that was the last time Hagel has publicly discussed the issue, leading some to speculate that he was going to let the whole idea die a quiet bureaucratic death.
The medal was the first new force-wide award recognizing combat achievement since the Bronze Star was created in 1944. It is strongly supported by the Air Force, which has struggled to retain drone pilots.