It was never about the medal, local veterans say.
It was where the Pentagon wanted to rank the ill-fated Distinguished Warfare Medal in the military’s hallowed order of precedence that outraged those veterans whose medals are a reminder that they were willing to sacrifice life or limb.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel last week canceled the new medal that would have honored the drone pilots and cyber operators who have changed the way wars are fought, albeit from miles away.
“We all recognize that they need recognized,” acknowledged Doug Wood, a combat-wounded Vietnam veteran from Clark County. “What went through us like a sword was when they wanted to put it above the Bronze Star and above the Purple Heart. That’s when it got a bad taste in my mouth.”
When Hagel’s predecessor, Leon Panetta, announced in February the creation of the medal — instantly derided as the “Nintendo Medal” by some — it was to be ranked directly below the Distinguished Flying Cross in the order of precedence.
That would have ranked the proposed Distinguished Warfare Medal higher than the Bronze Star, which often is awarded for valor in combat, and the Purple Heart, which can only be awarded to someone wounded or killed by an enemy.
Hagel, himself a recipient of two Purple Hearts from his time in Vietnam, ordered a review of the medal, halted its production and, finally, nixed it outright, but not before lawmakers in the House introduced legislation to prevent it from being ranked above the Purple Heart.
Instead of a separate medal, nontraditional warriors in remote locations now will be recognized with a new distinguishing device that can be affixed to existing medals.
“Amen,” said Dave Bauer, commander of the Clark County Military Order of the Purple Heart.
It goes without saying that local combat veterans are pleased by Hagel’s decision.
When contacted by the Springfield News-Sun last month about the medal controversy, Bauer, a Vietnam veteran who was awarded both the Bronze Star and Purple Heart in 1969, could barely contain his ire.
“I can’t believe the way people are thinking anymore,” Bauer said then. “That’s like the ‘Twilight Zone,’ isn’t it?”
Tom Storer, a Springfield resident who served in Vietnam as a Marine, said it’s hard to equate the experiences of drone pilots, many of whom are based in the U.S. and get to go home every night, to troops in the field.
“It still takes boots on the ground to win a war,” said Storer, who said when he was in Vietnam, he was promised one meal and one hour of sleep a day.
“You don’t get that hour all at once,” he added.
Among those who could have received the Distinguished Warfare Medal are guardsmen at the Springfield Air National Guard Base, who are now tasked with remotely piloting Predator drones around the clock on combat air patrols.
Local drone operators already have been awarded the Air Force’s Aerial Achievement Medal a number of times. Created in 1988, that medal honors sustained meritorious achievement in flight going above and beyond normal expectations.
The Pentagon’s only mistake then, veterans say, was the proposed ranking of the new medal.
Otherwise, “It would have flown,” said Wood, a recipient of the Purple Heart. “They’d already be issuing them.”
Staying with the story
We reported on the proposal that would have ranked a medal for drone pilots higher than the Purple Heart since the beginning and stayed with the story to get local reaction through the decision to end the plan.