U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Monday that he will downgrade a new military medal designed for operators of unmanned drones. The Department of Defense announced the "drone service medal" in February, but public outcry led to Hagel’s decision to lower its status.
Instead, drone "pilots" with exemplary service will be given an addition to existing medals, according to a Pentagon statement. The new drone service medals will reportedly be similar to the “V” for valor attachment that can be affixed to a soldier’s Bronze Star.
“The Joint Chiefs of Staff, with the concurrence of the service secretaries, have recommended the creation of a new distinguishing device that can be affixed to existing medals to recognize the extraordinary actions of this small number of men and women,” Hagel said in a press release.
“I agree with the Joint Chiefs’ findings, and have directed the creation of a distinguishing device instead of a separate medal,” Hagel added. “The servicemen and women who operate and support our remotely piloted aircraft, operate in cyber, and others are critical to our military’s mission of safeguarding the nation.”
When the Department of Defense first announced the creation of special drone service medals commemorating operators of unmanned aircraft on Feb. 13, several veterans groups and politicians opposed the medal because it would outrank the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Many felt that such a decoration for people who work thousands of miles from any front line, at no risk of injury, diminished the service of soldiers in combat.
Groups such the Veterans of Foreign Wars wrote letters to President Barack Obama and the Department of Defense asking to keep the drone service medal below the rank of a Purple Hart. The VFW appears to be satisfied following Hagel’s changes.
“The right decision was made,” the VFW told Fox News Monday. “This decision will clearly keep medals that can only be earned in combat in their high order of precedence, while providing proper recognition to all who support our war-fighters regardless of their distance from the fight.”
But some politicians are still opposed to the very concept of rewarding drone pilots with valor awards.
“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,” Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., told Bloomberg in an email. Hunter, a Marine veteran, has been outspoken about his disagreement with the drone service medal.
“The concern with the DWM was its precedence, not necessarily the medal itself. Right now, I can’t say this addresses my concerns about preserving the integrity and tradition of the awards process.”