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March 12. 2013 10:04PM

'Drone' honor angers combat veterans

A Pentagon plan to rank above combat medals a new decoration designed for drone pilots drew harsh criticism Tuesday from veterans groups and New Hampshire's two U.S. senators.

In its current form, the Distinguished Warfare Medal, which is designed to recognize service members such as drone pilots and cyber warriors for achievements that do not involve direct combat, would be ranked above the Bronze Star Medal and the Purple Heart.

"To say that somebody sitting behind a desk at a computer controlling drones deserves an award above (combat decorations) is really demeaning and demoralizing to people who received a Purple Heart or Bronze Star," said Paul F. Roy Jr., the cofounder of Veterans Awareness Coalition, which is based in New Hampshire. "It's an insult to the men and women who put themselves in harm's way."

Roy, a combat veteran of the Afghanistan War, said he received a barrage of angry emails from veterans over the new medal's proposed ranking.

New Hampshire U.S. Sens. Kelly Ayotte and Jeanne Shaheen were part of a bipartisan group of senators who sent a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam veteran and recipient of two Purple Hearts, asking him to reconsider the new medal's placement above combat decorations.

"With your direct combat experience, you know too well that generations of Americans have risked their lives in combat, and many have paid the ultimate sacrifice. The precedence of combat awards recognizes these acts of heroism and should maintain as our military's highest honors," the letter said.

Responding to the criticism, Hagel on Tuesday ordered the military service chiefs to review the new Distinguished Warfare Medal and the Pentagon stopped its production, according to the U.S. Defense Department. The medal was introduced last month by former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

"I'm encouraged that Secretary Hagel has ordered a review of the Distinguished Warfare Medal and its precedence in relation to combat medals," Ayotte, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. "While extraordinary achievements in non-combat situations should be appropriately recognized, medals earned in combat for acts of heroism, bravery, and sacrifice should remain the nation's highest and most sacred military honors."

"Combat awards ought to be unique and the generations of Americans that have risked their lives on behalf of our country rightfully deserve special recognition," Shaheen said in a statement. "While cyber specialists and unmanned aerial vehicle pilots are obviously vital to our national defense, when recognizing their efforts we need to make sure we're not inadvertently diminishing the service of those directly in harm's way."

tbuckland@unionleader.com

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