Some warriors inside the Pentagon are amused and angered by outgoing Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta’s decision to create a prestigious heroism medal for cyber- and drone-combatants who sit inside stations outside a war zone.
Mr. Panetta is exiting the building as a man generally admired by the Pentagon population, including hundreds of those tested in battle, for his hawkish views on killing Islamic terrorists and his devotion to the troops.
But now he is also the brunt of jokes for his announcement Wednesday that he had created the Distinguished Warfare Medal and placed it high on the medal prestige list.
“I suppose now they will award Purple Hearts for carpal tunnel syndrome,” said a retired Green Beret who does contract work for the Pentagon.
Examples of those eligible for the new medal include service members who operate Predator drones over Afghanistan or Pakistan from the shelter of an air base, and military computer whizzes who defeat cyberattacks by China.
It is not the award itself but its placement above, in order of prestige, the Bronze Star, that baffles and rankles some. The Bronze Star is awarded for extraordinary service to combatants in an actual war zone. It is adorned with a “V” if it is earned in direct combat.
The military prides itself on the authenticity of medals, which become a sort of chest-mounted resume that quickly informs colleagues of one’s assignments, performance and accomplishments.
An Army colonel who fought in Afghanistan and who admires Mr. Panetta told The Washington Times that he was taken aback by the “sudden” announcement.
“It has been surreal to hear the response in the corridors of the Pentagon,” the officer said. “Everyone was floored by the sudden announcement. Many are still convinced it is a joke from The Onion [an online satire website] that duped people.”
He added: “I’ve had conversations with about a dozen people over the last couple of days here at the Pentagon and read the various rants from retired friends on Facebook. Attitude ranges from rage to a mix of anger and amusement. Everyone assumes it was an Air Force push, so there is anger towards both the medal and the Air Force over this.”
An Army employee at the Pentagon who saw combat on active duty told The Times: “This is silly and disrespects those who sacrificed so much to serve in the war zones. In a time of war and in the wake of 12 years of fighting in harsh theaters like Iraq and Afghanistan, the Defense Department should not create a medal ranked higher than combat medals like the Purple Heart and Bronze Star to honor people whose only hardship is spilling hot coffee in their lap as they move their joystick to fly a drone.”
In what will likely be his final news conference as defense secretary, Mr. Panetta on Wednesday announced his decision to create the medal as keeping pace with today’s technologies.
“I’ve seen firsthand how modern tools, like remotely piloted platforms and cybersystems, have changed the way wars are fought,” he said. “And they’ve given our men and women the ability to engage the enemy and change the course of battle, even from afar.”
The Pentagon said the Distinguished Warfare Medal will rank right below the Distinguished Flying Cross, which puts it above the Bronze Star.
“The medal ranked below the Bronze would likely have caused general indifference,” the Army colonel said.
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