Panetta unveiled the new Distinguished Warfare Medal, which will be awarded only to U.S. service members involved in unmanned aerial drone and cyber warfare operations.
In the hierarchy of combat commendations -- and this is where Panetta and the Pentagon brass stepped in it -- the new award will rank in importance between the Silver Star and Bronze Star.
The Silver Star and Bronze Star are the third- and fourth-highest U.S. military honor awarded American service personnel in combat and rank just above the Purple Heart, which is for being wounded in action.
The ranking of the new medal has ignited a firestorm of criticism from veterans and veterans' groups -- and rightly so.
"Medals that can only be earned in direct combat must mean more than medals awarded in the rear," said John Hamilton, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Hamilton's view is on the mark and likely shared with many Americans who have never been in the military or have never seen combat. It simply makes sense to award the most prestigious medals of valor or distinguished service to those who are in harm's way and who exhibited courage and heroism in battle.
That does not mean drone pilots and cyber warriors are not important. To the contrary, it takes a great amount of skill to master operation of flying drones to accurately hit targets half a world away. The bombs the drones drop and the rockets they fire are real and the lives taken -- young and old -- were equally real.
Not only is it difficult, it can be emotionally draining.
Killing another human can take a serious emotional toll on people. When troops are in a war zone and fire their guns or drop bombs from plans to kill enemies, they return to their bases with others who were there with them on the mission. But when a drone pilot in Missouri kills 15 people in Afghanistan and then goes to his or her kid's school play that night, there is a disconnect that can magnify the emotional issues.
And drones and cyber warfare saved American lives in battle.
The VFW gets it. Its leadership "fully concurs" with the notion that rear echelon forces can have a significant impact in combat.
Few would begrudge those involved in cyber combat the opportunity to receive medals as long as it is clear there is a distinction between battlefield medals.
It was simply a mistake to introduce a new medal that, intended or not, tarnishes the importance of the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.
The Pentagon needs to rethink its approach to creating cyber medals.
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