The Pentagon is creating a new high-level military medal that will recognize drone pilots and, in a controversial twist, giving it added clout by placing it above some traditional combat valor medals in the military’s “order of precedence.”
The Distinguished Warfare Medal will be awarded to pilots of unmanned aircraft, offensive cyber war experts or others who are directly involved in combat operations but who are not physically in theater and facing the physical risks that warfare historically entails.
The new 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 Valor device, a medal awarded to troops for specific heroic acts performed under fire in combat.
The new medal is a brass pendant, nearly two inches tall, with a laurel wreath that circles a globe. An eagle is in the center. The ribbon has blue, red and white stripes.
“This award recognizes the reality of the kind of technological warfare we are engaged in the 21st century,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters in Washington on Wednesday.
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,” Panetta said.
“But we should also have the ability to honor the extraordinary actions that make a true difference in combat operations,” Panetta said. “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.
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 in an interview Wednesday. “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?”