Controversy spurs Pentagon's Hagel to review new 'Nintendo' medal

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will reconsider new Distinguished Warfare Medal, for which drone operators are eligible. Critics complain it ranks higher than the Bronze Star or Purple Heart – awards for acts of valor in physical combat.

Jason Reed/Reuters
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel participates in the awarding of a Purple Heart medal to Army Private Harry Hikes (l.) and Sergeant Jeremyah Williams of the 426 Brigade Support Battalion, at Jalalabad Airfield in eastern Afghanistan, Saturday. Hagel will reconsider the new Distinguished Warfare Medal – promptly dubbed the 'Nintendo' medal by troops – which has been a magnet for controversy.

Since its debut last month, the new Distinguished Warfare Medal – promptly dubbed the “Nintendo” medal by troops – has been a magnet for controversy. Now, new Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is apparently reconsidering whether such a medal – which could be awarded to cyber specialists, say, or remote operators of Predator or Reaper drones that kill enemy forces threatening the lives of troops on the ground – should retain its high ranking in the medal pecking order.

Pentagon officials are expected to announce Tuesday afternoon that the medal – created to award US troops for “extraordinary achievements directly impacting combat operations” – is under review. 

The medal is meant to acknowledge contributions of troops “regardless of the member’s physical location or domain,” according to Pentagon background papers. Many pilots of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones, operate their aircraft in Afghanistan from bases in Nevada.

The Distinguished Warfare Medal (DWM) is the first new Defense Department-wide medal to be established since 1944. The award, these officials stress, is not to be awarded for acts of valor in combat.

Few have a problem with recognizing the contributions of UAV pilots whose achievements, officials note, “have in some cases dramatically changed how we conduct and support combat and other military operations.”

The problem is that the DWM was placed in order of precedence ahead of the Bronze Star, and even above the Bronze Star with a “V” device for valorous conduct in combat.

Since 9/11, only 2.5 percent of the more than 167,000 Bronze Stars meted out have been awarded with a “V,” according to Pentagon figures.

This point in particular – that the DWM would rank above a Bronze Star with “V” – prompted an outcry among veterans groups and, in a rare show of bipartisan unity, members of Congress on both sides of the political aisle.

On Friday, 22 senators signed a letter to Secretary Hagel, citing their chief complaint: “We believe that medals earned in combat, or in dangerous conditions, should maintain their precedence above non-combat awards,” they wrote. “Placing the Distinguished Warfare Medal above the Bronze Star and Purple Heart diminishes the significance of awards earned by risking one’s life in direct combat or through acts of heroism.” 

What’s more, the DWM “diminishes the precedence given to acts of individual gallantry in circumstances other than combat,” they argued in the letter.

The American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars have also weighed in against the medal.

Some in veterans groups express a hope that Hagel will be receptive to their complaints. 

“This isn’t a knock on Leon Panetta, but unlike Chuck Hagel, Panetta was never a grunt, an enlisted man,” Jon Soltz, co-founder of and an Iraq war veteran, wrote in a recent blog for the Huffington Post. “In Hagel, we have someone who brings that unique experience to the table.”

Hagel served as an infantry squad leader during the height of the war in Vietnam

In this hope, they were not disappointed. “In light of concerns about the medal’s place in the order of precedence raised by veterans organizations and a number of members of Congress” – including the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee – ”Secretary Hagel is going to work with the chairman, service secretaries, and chiefs to review the order of precedence of the medal,” a senior defense official said Tuesday.

In the meantime, says a defense official, the production of the medal, which some have joked should include a video game joystick, has been halted. 

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