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Amid jeers, some cheers for UAV/cyber medal

Feb. 20, 2013 - 09:55AM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 20, 2013 - 09:55AM  |  
The Pentagon is creating the Distinguished Service Medal to recognize troops in high-tech career fields who affect the battlefield without actually being in theater.
The Pentagon is creating the Distinguished Service Medal to recognize troops in high-tech career fields who affect the battlefield without actually being in theater. ()

A new medal for unmanned aircraft operators and cyber warriors has sparked a fierce backlash from people who believe those who are not physically in combat should not get a higher award than troops who risk their lives.

The Distinguished Warfare Medal will rank just below the Distinguished Flying Cross. It will have precedence over and be worn on a uniform above the Bronze Star with "V" device, a medal awarded to troops for specific heroic acts performed under fire in combat.

The order of precedence came as a surprise to Doug Sterner, a military medals expert and the curator of the">Military Times Hall of Valor, the largest database of military medal recipients.

"It's got me puzzled," Sterner said. "I understand the need to recognize the guys at the console who are doing some pretty important things. But to see it ranking above the Bronze Star [with] V?" The decision to have the medal rank higher than the Bronze Star has caused an outpouring of negative reaction.

"Sit in a lazy boy and wiggle a joystick ... and you wonder why I left the Air Force," a reader posted on the Air Force Times website. "This is a slap in the face to any true combat airman that fought in ground combat operations and earned their medals."

The head of the Veterans of Foreign Wars issued a Feb. 14 statement saying the decision to have the Distinguished Warfare Medal rank higher than the Bronze Star "could quickly deteriorate into a morale issue."

"The VFW fully concurs that those far from the fight are having an immediate impact on the battlefield in real-time, but medals that can only be earned in direct combat must mean more than medals awarded in the rear," said John E. Hamilton, VFW national commander.

Hamilton urged the Pentagon to "reconsider the new medal's placement in the military order of precedence."

Others suggested the medal is not really necessary.

"Why does it have to be a new medal?" said Nick McDowell, a member of the Orders and Medals Society of America.

High-tech troops could be recognized with current medals or, if necessary, the Pentagon could add a new ribbon device attached to an existing medal, McDowell said.

"The problem is that we're adding another nonvalor personal decoration into a system that is already crowded with nonvalor personal decorations," McDowell said. "The ultimate consequence is that it will diminish the prestige of the valor decorations. Nobody wants that, but that is basically what happens."

One unmanned aircraft pilot said he empathizes with those who think the medal should not be higher than the Bronze Star.

"I can totally accept that argument that those who risk their lives on the front lines deserve higher recognition for what they do," said the pilot, who did not want to be identified out of fear of retaliation.

Still, there are concerns in the unmanned aircraft community that operators are being watched as they drive to and from work, so they are not entirely safe.

On the whole, the medal should give unmanned aircraft operators much-needed recognition, the pilot said.

"The majority of what [unmanned aircraft] operators rely on for promotions or any sort of advancement in the Air Force usually comes from other communities," he said. "So whatever somebody did in an F-15 or whatever somebody did in a C-5 or a C-17 or a KC-135 usually determines the majority of whether or not they get promoted."

Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. James Poss said he doesn't think it's fair to argue that the Bronze Star should be a higher award because you have to be "in danger" to get it.

"I have two Bronze Stars myself and I didn't run much of a personal risk for either," said Poss, former assistant deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. "I got one for commanding an RC-135 squadron from the safety of England during the Kosovo air war and another for being the chief of intelligence at a very secure base in Saudi Arabia for early OEF [Operation Enduring Freedom]."

The Distinguished Warfare Medal recognizes the magnitude of the achievement, not the personal risk taken by the recipient, Poss said in an email.

"I think the [un-manned aircraft] and [ground station] crews that hunted al-Qaida in Iraq leader [Abu Musab] Zarqawi did a lot more for national security than I did for either Bronze Star," he said.

Unmanned aircraft operators also save lives, such as during the battle of Robert's Ridge in Afghanistan in 2002, Poss said. U.S. forces were pinned down after their CH-47 Chinook helicopter crashed, he said.

"Predator ops took out an enemy bunker very close to our troops, warned them about enemy reinforcements and literally stayed up with them all night, painting the area around them with their laser to let them know their Air Force was with them," he said.

The total number of lives that unmanned aircraft have saved is "unquantifiable," said a senior Air Force official.

"Every time the airplane is up, it's directly supporting a ground element," said the official, who did not want to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the record.

"We know we've at least saved one airman or one soldier's life we know that for a fact, at least one and if we've saved one, then the whole thing is worth it," he said.

The new medal will be awarded for specific acts, such as the successful targeting of a particular individual at a critical time.

"Our military reserves its highest decorations obviously for those who display gallantry and valor in actions when their lives are on the line and we will continue to do so," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said at a Feb. 13 news conference. "But we should also have the ability to honor the extraordinary actions that make a true difference in combat operations.

"The contribution they make does contribute to the success of combat operations, particularly when they remove the enemy from the field of battle, even if those actions are physically removed from the fight."

The service secretaries will make the final determination for awarding the Distinguished Warfare Medal, which is meant to recognize service members whose accomplishments are "truly extraordinary," but who are not eligible for the Bronze Star, which only service members who receive imminent danger pay or hazardous duty pay can receive, said Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen, a Defense Department spokesman.

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