Monday March 25, 2013

The Sun of Lowell (Mass.), March 19, 2013

Who would have thought that Chuck Hagel’s first important decision -- and controversy -- as U.S. Secretary of Defense would involve whether or not the Pentagon should honor remote warfare troops with a medal?

Hagel recently issued an order to stop production on the Distinguished Warfare Medal (DWM) which would be awarded to troops who operate unmanned drones and work as cyber warfighters.

The medal would outrank the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

And that’s the source of the controversy.

Veterans groups and members of Congress have protested the new medal’s ranking, saying it appears to be a war-time medal that overrides acts of heroism and valor associated with the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

The DWM’s intent is valid, say the veterans groups, but it should not be placed above awards given to those who’ve actually put themselves in harm’s way from enemy fire.

Hagel wants the Pentagon to review the medal’s ranking in the "order of precedence." He could eventually decide to scuttle the honor too.

Hagel inherited this task from former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta who instituted the award. Panetta wanted to recognize servicemen and women who are engaging the enemy with modern tools of warfare, gathering intelligence with computers and killing terrorists from afar with drones.

No one is arguing with Panetta. The new medal has a significant purpose in the ever-changing high-tech world of warfare.


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Where he went wrong, however, is in underestimating the time-honored tradition -- and sensitivities -- of the "order of precedence."

Panetta should have received input from the very people who are the "keepers of the faith," so to speak -- the veterans themselves.

We can see where cyber warfare will become more crucial in determining the outcome of insurgent battles and wars. America’s cyber troops are highly trained and operate some of the world’s most sophisticated military equipment, including Predator and Reaper drones. They hold the fates of people at their fingertips, just like a soldier with a gun on the battlefield. They must learn to cope with inflicting death while being held accountable for their actions.

But drone pilots don’t face real bullets or risk their lives on a battlefield. So while they deserve to be recognized with an award all their own, the award should not pull rank on those reserved for combat heroes.