Hagel Downgrades Drone Operators’ Medal to ‘Device’

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will rescind a special medal announced in February for operators of unmanned drones, instead establishing a “distinguishing device” to be affixed to existing medals, according to a Pentagon statement.

Hagel’s predecessor, Leon Panetta, established the Distinguished Warfare Medal to recognize achievements by drone operators and cyberwarriors. Hagel is taking the step on the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“I agree with the Joint Chiefs’ findings and have directed the creation of a distinguishing device instead of a separate medal,” Hagel said in a statement to be released today.

A Pentagon review ordered by Hagel “confirmed the need to ensure such recognition,” while finding “that misconceptions regarding the precedence of the award were distracting from its original purpose,” according to the statement.

The new device “can be affixed to existing medals to recognize such extraordinary actions of this small number of men and women,” Hagel said.

The Pentagon created the medal to recognize the changing nature of 21st century warfare, in which unmanned aircraft and cyberwarfare are playing increasing roles. The Defense Department said it wanted to honor troops with special training and skills that “directly and precisely impact military operations at times far removed from the battlefield,” according to a Pentagon statement in February.

Ranking Medals

Establishment of the Distinguished Warfare Medal set off protests from lawmakers and veterans’ groups. Leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee said the medal shouldn’t rank higher than those for action on the battlefield, such as the Bronze Star for heroism and Purple Heart.

Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, received two Purple Hearts for being wounded during service as an Army sergeant in Vietnam.

Hagel directed officials to present him with final award criteria for his approval within 90 days.

“The servicemen and women who operate and support our remotely piloted aircraft” are “critical to our military’s mission of safeguarding the nation,” Hagel wrote.

“We’ll have to see what they come up with, but it sounds like traditional valor awards might still be used for recognizing drone operators; the only distinction is there’s a device,” said Representative Duncan Hunter, a California Republican and former Marine who has opposed the original medal’s rank in the hierarchy of military decorations.

“The concern with the DWM was its precedence, not necessarily the medal itself,” Hunter said in an e-mailed statement. “Right now, I can’t say this addresses my concerns about preserving the integrity and tradition of the awards process.”