WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has quietly implemented a series of changes to its awards policy for troops involved in combat, establishing new criteria for recognizing contributions both on and off the battlefield.

Commanders may now recommend their troops for 12 types of awards affixed with new "C" or "R" devices, products of an internal review focused on honoring drone operators, cyber warfare specialists and others who use emerging technology to influence the battlefield in unconventional ways. The former, which stands for "combat," signifies meritorious performance "under combat conditions" while the latter, which stands for "remote," is reserved for those "not directly exposed to hostile action or significant risk." 

Equally noteworthy,  the Pentagon's guidance establishes new eligibility rules for awarding medals with the coveted "V" device intended to recognize valorous combat actions taken at great risk and under duress. Service specific Achievement Medals are no longer eligible for a "V," only a "C" or "R," a decision some may call controversial. That's true now, too, for the Legion of Merit, heretofore awarded with a "V" only by the Navy and Marine Corps. However, each of the services is clear to award the Distinguished Flying Cross with "V," as the Air Force has since for heroism dating to the Korean War.

"Overall, I find these changes surprisingly good and well thought out," said Doug Sterner, an expert on military awards who operates Military Times' Hall of Valor database. "It does bring the awards into conformity across the branches."

This chart includes the awards now eligible for "C," "R" and "V" devices:

Both new devices are retroactive to January 2016, according to an Army news release announcing its plans to implement the new rules. Awards approved prior to that date are not eligible, it says. A Pentagon spokesman told Military Times that each of the services will roll out the new policy by the end of this year.

The new awards come with specific criteria. Here's how the new policy defines them:

"C" device. Recognizes meritorious service or achievement under combat conditions, and authorized only if the service or achievement was performed while personnel were exposed to hostile action or significant risk:
  • While engaged in action against an enemy of the U.S.
  • While engaged in military operations involving conflict with a foreign force.
  • While serving with friendly forces engaged in armed conflict in which the U.S. is not a principal party.
The "R" device. Recognizes hands-on employment of a weapon system or other war-fighting activities with direct and immediate impact on an operation. The device appears intended for drone operators, cyber warfare specialists and others who contribute to battlefield initiatives while not directly exposed to hostile action or significant risk:
  • While engaged in action against an enemy of the U.S.
  • While engaged in military operations involving conflict with a foreign force.
  • While serving with friendly forces engaged in armed conflict in which the U.S. is not a principal party.
Both new devices are the same color, size and font as the "V" device.

The concept was introduced in early 2016, after the Pentagon's review recommended several policy changes aimed at modernizing the military's awards system to recognize contributions made by those who have unique roles supporting combat operations. That effort began after the controversial attempt by then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to establish a "Distinguished Warfare Medal" — dismissed by some as "the Nintendo medal" — for drone pilots and cyber techs.

The policy changes also seek to tighten the criteria for awarding the Bronze Star specifically, a combat award that can be presented without a "V," and often was throughout the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, for "meritorious" performance. Now, a service member could receive a Meritorious Service Medal instead if his or her commander determines that, while the job performance was admirable, the assignment came with few inherent risks.

Neither a "C" nor an "R" can be awarded with a Bronze Star medal, according to the new policy.

"Recognizing valor," a defense official told Military Times last year when the review was complete, "should be the preeminent thing we do in the Department of Defense."

To that end, some service members and military veterans may question the shift away from allowing Achievement Medals to be presented with "V" devices. Since the war on terrorism began in 2001, thousands of troops received them to recognize bravery and heroism in active war zones and other hostile locations.

James Goff received a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal with "V" for his actions as a Marine sergeant during an ugly gunbattle in southern Iraq just days after the U.S. invasion in March 2003. Goff's commander nominated him and another Marine, John Jamison, for Bronze Stars with "V." A higher command knocked them down, a fate that's befallen many combat awards throughout the war on terrorism.

To be eligible for a "V," Goff told Military Times, one had to "receive direct fire and return direct fire. A very simple and understood meaning of the Marines' application of the device. So why remove it from any award if said award is downgraded? Does that mean the event never took place?"

Goff characterized this particular policy change as "petty," but said the award remains just as relevant. "Does it change my perception of the award? Hell no," he added. "Doesn't change a thing."

Jamison suggested the Pentagon should evaluate whether rank unfairly factors into the decision-making process. "In my view, it seems DoD is making these decisions to allow for specific actions to be awarded more specifically. I'm fine with that," he said. "Let's also take a good hard look at the actions versus the rank when awarding them too."

Sterner, the medals expert, noted a harrowing 2006 incident in Sudan, where 16 U.S. Air Force personnel were detained at gunpoint for several hours aboard their HC-130 search and rescue plane. The standoff was eventually diffused and, three years later, eight crew members were recognized with Air Force Achievement Medals bearing the "V" device — awards unilaterally downgraded from a mix of Bronze Stars, for which the officers had been nominated, and Air Force Commendation Medals, recommended for the enlisted airmen. 

"My first reaction upon hearing that story was 'What in the hell is this?' " Sterner said. "The answer is, the Air Force wanted to the incident under wraps."

And while Sterner said he supports the Pentagon's decision to make Achievement Medals ineligible for "V" devices, saying conformity is important and these medals "are by definition 'achievement' awards," he believes too that the Pentagon should automatically boost all Achievement Medals with "V" to Commendation Medals with "V." 

"There is precedence," Sterner added, "for such universal upgrades."

Andrew deGrandpre is Military Times' senior editor and Pentagon bureau chief. On Twitter: @adegrandpre.

Charlsy Panzino covers the Guard and Reserve, training, technology, operations and features for Army Times and Air Force Times. On Twitter: @charlsypanzino.

Charlsy is a Reporter and Engagement Manager for Military Times. Email her at cpanzino@militarytimes.com.

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