- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 12, 2013

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, which was ranked higher than traditional combat medals like the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.

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 Tuesday that Hagel ordered another look in light of concerns by lawmakers and veterans groups over the fact that the new medal was 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 others,” 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. It was not immediately known how many had been produced.

Veterans of Foreign Wars spokesman Joe Davis called Hagel’s action “a very encouraging sign” but noted that fixing the problem is “not yet a done deal.”

Hagel’s decision “shows exactly why we supported him” for defense secretary, said VoteVets.org, a progressive political action committee that has been lobbying for a change in the medal. “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.”

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Ca., said fixing the issue is one thing, but the Pentagon also should “admit this was a bad idea” in the first place.

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.

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