WASHINGTON (AP) -- The military has stopped production of a new medal for remote warfare troops — drone operators and cyber warfighters — as it considers complaints from veterans and lawmakers over the award, the Pentagon announced Tuesday.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has ordered a review of the Distinguished Warfare Medal, which was to be awarded to troops who operate drones and use other technological skills to fight America's wars from afar.
Pentagon press secretary George Little said Hagel ordered another look in light of concerns by lawmakers and veterans groups, mainly the following: Although troops can get the new medal for work far from the battlefield, it has been ranked above medals for those who served on the front line in harm's way, such as the Purple Heart given to wounded troops.
"He's heard their concerns, he's heard the concerns of other," Little said of Hagel.
If the review agrees with those complaints, the medal would likely have to be renamed and new medals manufactured, a government official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
In ordering a new look at the medal, Hagel said Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey would lead a review of how the medal is ranked among others — where it is in what the military calls "the order of precedence" of the medal, Little said.
Hagel is going to work with Dempsey, the service secretaries and the service chiefs to review the ranking. He wants Dempsey to report back in 30 days.
In addition to vet concerns, there is a practical side to the rankings for currently serving troops. There are grades of medals — commendation, merit, distinguished — that affect not only the name but promotions for those still in uniform. Each grade gives troops a certain number of points needed for promotions.
Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced the new medal last month, saying it was meant to recognize battlefield contributions in a world of changing warfare.
"I've seen firsthand how modern tools, like remotely piloted platforms and cyber systems, have changed the way wars are fought," Panetta said. "And they've given our men and women the ability to engage the enemy and change the course of battle, even from afar."
Over the last decade of war, remotely piloted Predator and Reaper drones have become a critical weapon to gather intelligence and conduct airstrikes against terrorists or insurgents around the world. They have been used extensively on the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and northern Africa.
Over the same time, cyberattacks have become a growing national security threat, with Panetta and others warning that the next Pearl Harbor could well be a computer-based assault.
Officials said in announcing the medal last month that it would be the first combat-related award to be created since the Bronze Star in 1944. And they said that in recognition of the evolving 21st century warfare, the medal would be considered a bit higher in ranking than the Bronze Star, but lower than the Silver Star.
The Veterans of Foreign War and other groups say that ranking it ahead of the Bronze Star and Purple Heart is an injustice to those who served on the front-lines.
John Bircher, a spokesman for the Military Order of the Purple Heart, has said the veterans groups are not objecting to the medal — just the ranking. He said some medals ranked ahead of the Purple Heart are achievement medals that can be earned outside of war time. What bothers many veterans is that the new Distinguished Warfare Medal appears be a war-time medal that trumps acts of valor, which he finds insulting.
The backlash to the Pentagon's announcement included an online petition to the White House signed by thousands of people. The petition called the medal "an injustice to those who served and risked their lives" and asked that it not be allowed to move forward as planned.