WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has launched three separate reviews on how military medals are awarded, in the face of broad criticism over the inability to recognize heroism in incidents such as the Fort Hood shootings and aborted plans to create a new award for drone pilots.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel signed a letter Thursday formally ordering a comprehensive yearlong study in military awards, saying it will primarily focus on whether the department adequately recognizes all levels of combat valor and if the award processes are appropriate.
In comments to Congress last week, Hagel said that as the U.S. comes out of its longest war, it's an appropriate time to do a complete review of all military decorations.
"As we scale back combat operations in Afghanistan at the end of this year, it is imperative that we use the lessons learned from 13 years of combat experience to improve the Department of Defense decorations and awards program," Hagel said in his letter to the Joint Chiefs and senior Pentagon leaders Thursday.
Lawmakers, meanwhile, have ordered two separate reviews that look at how the military awards Purple Hearts, largely due to disagreements over whether victims killed and injured in the shootings at Fort Hood and at a recruiting center in Little Rock, Ark., should be entitled to the medal.
Hagel also said that the broader review will specifically look at the plan announced last year to develop a way to recognize service members who use drones and other remote technologies to directly affect combat operations.
Last year, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced the creation of a Distinguished Warfare Medal to be awarded to troops such as drone operators and cyber warriors who had a major impact on a combat operation without ever stepping foot in the warzone. Months later, amid withering criticism from veterans groups and Congress members, the Hagel canceled the medal and sent the issue back for more study.
A key complaint about Panetta's recommendation was that the medal would have been ranked a bit higher than the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, but lower than the Silver Star. Veterans groups were incensed, saying it should not rank higher than those combat medals.
"These reviews are great news. Most of all, they need to take into consideration the thoughts of those in uniform, regarding the medals," said Jon Soltz, an Iraq War veteran and chairman of VoteVets.org. "I think, if they do, they will find broad support for ensuring the drone medal doesn't rank higher in precedent than various valor awards from officers and enlisted troops who have been in combat, and broad support for giving Purple Hearts to the Soldiers wounded or killed at Fort Hood."