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Rank of new medal concerns local vets

Springfield drone crews could be honored, but some worry medal is ranked too high.

Dave Bauer earned his medals the old-fashioned way — by risking his life.

In 1969, the Clark County resident earned a Bronze Star braving mortar and rocket fire, then received a Purple Heart when he was wounded.

Now, he’s dismayed that a person operating a drone thousands of miles away could soon be the recipient of a more prestigious medal, the military’s new Distinguished Warfare Medal.

Local combat veterans like Bauer are upset, not with the creation of the new medal, but by its position in the order of precedence. The medal, which soon will be awarded for a single extraordinary act regardless of a person’s physical distance to traditional combat, will sit directly below the Distinguished Flying Cross in prestige, the Pentagon has determined.

That means the Distinguished Warfare Medal — which one day could be awarded to local Guardsmen at the Springfield Air National Guard Base who remotely pilot Predator drones on combat air patrols — will rank higher than both the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.

“I can’t believe the way people are thinking anymore. That’s like the Twilight Zone, isn’t it?” said Bauer, 66, commander of the Clark County Military Order of the Purple Heart.

A Vietnam veteran, he received his Bronze Star by climbing a 90-foot pole in the middle of an attack in order to erect an antenna needed to radio for air support. He later was wounded in a rocket attack that killed two other men.

Despite criticism from veterans groups about the Distinguished Warfare Medal’s ranking that began almost immediately after its announcement last month, the U.S. Department of Defense is standing by its decision.

“The medal was unanimously approved by the chairman and the joint chiefs of staff,” Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman, said Monday. “There’s no plan to lower the DWM’s order of precedence.”

The medal will live up to its place in the order, according to Christensen.

“I don’t suspect we’ll be looking to hand out a lot of these medals,” he said. “This is to be awarded for achievements so extraordinary … it will take a lot to earn this medal.”

Roger Tackett, a former Clark County commissioner who lost the ability to walk on Aug. 5, 1967, after being shot by an AK-47 in South Vietnam, doesn’t disagree that drone operators deserve medals for their actions.

“There should be a way to do that,” Tackett said, “that would not dishonor those who have sacrificed so greatly.”

“I appreciate any veteran who serves, regardless of where they are,” he added, “but to rank this medal ahead of anybody’s who served on the ground is ridiculous.”

The Military Order of the Purple Heart didn’t mince words in a statement that read, “To rank what is basically an award for meritorious service higher than any award for heroism is degrading and insulting.”

The media outlet Stars and Stripes reported that the controversy has now spread to Congress, where new legislation introduced last week in the House would prohibit the Distinguished Warfare Medal from being rated above the Purple Heart, a medal that can only be received by someone wounded or killed by the enemy.

Col. Gregory Schnulo, commander of the 178th Fighter Wing at the Springfield Air National Guard Base, supports the Pentagon’s creation of a medal to recognize the operators of remotely piloted aircraft like the MQ-1 Predator, but didn’t want to wade into the controversy.

“It’s part of a cultural evolution in the Air Force,” Schnulo said.

He said the medal — which also could be awarded to operators of cyber systems — is a recognition of warfare’s future.

Local Guardsmen already have been awarded the Air Force’s Aerial Achievement Medal a number of times, he said, for their work operating Predator drones. Created in 1988, that medal honors sustained meritorious achievement in flight going above and beyond normal expectations.

About 200 Guardsmen locally are involved in the Predator mission, and have been flying combat air patrols around the clock from Springfield since February 2012. Before the mission was up and running here, Springfield Guardsmen flew Predators for about a year from Tuscon, Ariz., Schnulo said, and some of the wing’s medals date to that period.

Lew Waters, a Springfield resident who was wounded twice during the 14 missions he flew over Europe during World War II as a B-17 tail-gunner, sees the reasoning to honor drone operators with a new medal.

“I understand these people are working hard and they’re under pressure,” Waters, 87, said, “but from a long distance. Absolutely it’s not to be above the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.”

During a reunion of Waters’ Second Bomb Group four or five years ago in Houston, he said they met six veterans of the Iraq War, all except one of whom had lost limbs during the war.

“To have them have a medal that’s not as high as the (new) Warfare Medal, it’s just unbelievable to me,” he said.

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