Pentagon Takes Heat for Elevating Cyber Warrior Medal Above Other Honors

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, speaking at a Feb. 13 press briefing, said the new award “recognizes the reality of the kind of technological warfare that we are engaged in, in the 21st century. “

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, speaking at a Feb. 13 press briefing, said the new award “recognizes the reality of the kind of technological warfare that we are engaged in, in the 21st century. “ Susan Walsh/AP

Distinguished Warfare Medal will have precedence over the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.

Pentagon plans to create an award for drone operators and cyber warriors that ranks above medals earned in physical battle is drawing fire from combat veterans, a former high-ranking Defense Department official and an advocacy group. But a Pentagon spokesman told Nextgov that Defense has no plans to reverse that order of precedence.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the award, the Distinguished Warfare Medal, will recognize high tech warriors -- personnel who operate “remotely piloted platforms and cyber systems [that] have changed the way wars are fought.” Panetta, speaking at a Feb. 13 press briefing, said the new award “recognizes the reality of the kind of technological warfare that we are engaged in, in the 21st century. “

The Defense chief said he recognized that the “military reserves its highest decorations obviously for those who display gallantry and valor in actions where their lives are on the line, and we will continue to do so.”

But, he added, “We should also have the ability to honor the extraordinary actions that make a true difference in combat. And the work that they do, the contribution that 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.”

Juliet Beyler, the acting director of officer and enlisted personnel management for the Defense Department, said the new medal takes into account that technological developments on the battlefield have changed the way service members fight. She said potential recipients of the new medal could include a service member involved in a cyber attack on a specific military target or a drone operator who takes out a target.

Still, the fact that the Distinguished Warfare Medal takes precedence over the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star earned the ire of Veterans of Foreign Wars. John Hamilton, national commander of VFW and a combat-wounded Marine Corps rifleman who served in Vietnam, said “medals that can only be earned in direct combat must mean more than medals awarded in the rear. The VFW urges the Department of Defense to reconsider the new medal’s placement in the military order of precedence.”

Brandon Friedman, a former Army infantry officer who served with the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq and Afghanistan and then served as the first online media director for the Veterans Affairs Department from 2009 to 2012, said in an email that “only the most uninformed person would fail to recognize that warfare has changed. So, it’s absolutely apopropriate for the Defense Department to create a Distinguished Warfare Medal and award it to those who work each day to combat cyber threats and operate remotely piloted aircraft.”

But, Friedman said, “it’s insulting that the Pentagon would rank the [Distinguished Warfare Medal] above the Bronze Star in order of precedence. Since 2001, I’ve seen a lot of detachment of senior leaders from troops on the line, but DoD’s tone-deaf response to the criticism it has received over precedence of the [new medal] takes it to a new level.”

Drone pilots and cyber warriors do not face the same lethal threats as troops engaged in combat, he said. “For this simple fact alone, with respect to medals awarded for tactical achievement, those who actually place their lives at physical risk should be recognized at a higher level than those who do not,” Friedman said.

Bernie Skoch, a retired Air Force brigadier general who spent much of his career managing information and communications systems (a cyber warrior before the term was coined), said in an email that he understands senior Pentagon leaders need to recognize the achievements of those who conduct a new form of high tech warfare.

But, Skoch said, “if they want to recognize most those who willingly and honorably put themselves at risk of life and limb, they have it wrong. The grunt who served on the beaches of Inchon did far more in that regard than does any cyber warrior today.”

He added, “My thinking is the men and women who served in mortal combat in Korea, Vietnam, and later conflicts deserve our nation to continue to honor their service. We need to hold their decorations higher than those who serve comfortably from cubicles near their homes, no matter the effects of their service.”

Maj. Dave Blair who has served as both a Predator drone instructor pilot and a manned AC-30UP gunship pilot, contended in an article last May in the professional journal of the Air Force, the Air and Space Power Journal, that UAV pilots face physical attack just as pilots of manned aircraft do, with the possibility that an enemy could hit drone control sites in the United States.

Blair, now a Ph.D. candidate at the Georgetown University International Relations Program, also argued that the criteria for an award of an Air Medal or a Distingushed Flying Cross is an action that means the difference between life and death for the “good guys,” something that can be accomplished by the crews of both manned and umanned aircraft.

The four services are in the process of setting standards for award of the Distinguished Warfare Medal and Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman, made it clear that the order for precedence “as of today” will not change. That order, Christensen said, “Was not haphazard and [was] vetted many times” by top Pentagon leaders before the decision was made.