Hagel Halts Drone Operators' Medal

Should desk-bound warriors receive higher recognition than soldiers on the ground?

Under pressure from veterans and lawmakers, newly appointed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel halted production of a medal awarded to drone pilots and cyber warriors, pending a 30-day investigation of whether desk-bound warriors deserve higher recognition than battlefield soldiers.

Veterans groups, in particular, criticized the Distinguished Warfare Medal’s ranking above the Purple Heart and Bronze Medal, both awarded to soldiers engaged in field combat. The progressive praised Hagel, a Vietnam War veteran himself, for his decision:

Having a former grunt who served in war at the top in the Pentagon means a deeper understanding of those who are serving our nation, right now.  The decision he’s made on this medal just demonstrates the closeness he feels to those who served and sacrificed for America.

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The drone operator’s medal, created by former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, poses many questions beyond its official rank. Some questioned the Pentagon’s power to even create such a high-ranking medal without Congressional approval. Before the Distinguished Warfare Medal, every award ranked above the Bronze Medal was created by Congressional vote.

“I’m not sure the [Defense Department] has the authority on their own to create an award this high,” Military Times Hall of Valor Doug Sterner told the Marine Corps Times.

Others criticized the creation of the medal from its inception, believing that awarding soldiers who kill people thousands of miles away without facing any physical danger themselves with a medal associated with bravery sends the wrong message. Whilst acknowledging the mental toil many drone pilots face, Glenn Greenwald wrote that giving them awards will only “shield” the United States’ deadly drone program from “further from critical scrutiny and challenge.”

Moreover, Salon’s Natasha Lennard notes that while Hagel’s decision will get praise from lawmakers and former soldiers, the status quo for American vets, in general, is rife with problems.

How the military will value those who carry out new forms of warfare, compared to troops that continue to put their lives at risk, remains an open question. However, the failing infrastructures for taking care of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan — which has seen thousands of vets go homeless and without treatment for PTSD– gives some indication of how on-the-ground troops are valued.

Steven Hsieh is an editorial assistant at AlterNet and writer based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @stevenjhsieh.