Combat veterans on Friday denounced a new medal for US troops who direct drone strikes or cyber attacks, calling the award an insult to those who risk life and limb on the battlefield.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta unveiled the new "Distinguished Warfare Medal" on Wednesday, saying it would recognize service members who play a crucial role in combat with high-tech weapons far from the frontline.
The medal, the first force-wide combat award to be created since 1944, ranks high in the hierarchy of US military medals, below the Silver Star but above the prestigious Bronze Star, which recognizes heroism in battle.
"To rank what is basically an award for meritorious service higher than any award for heroism is degrading and insulting to every American Combat Soldier, Airman, Sailor or Marine who risks his or her life and endures the daily rigors of combat in a hostile environment," said the Military Order of the Purple Heart, an organization dedicated to wounded combat veterans.
The new medal "would even rank higher than the Purple Heart Medal which can only be received by a servicemember who is either wounded or killed in action by the enemy," it said.
The Defense Department must reconsider how to honor the contributions of those operating unmanned aircraft or cyber tools without appearing to devalue awards for extraordinary valor, according to John Hamilton, head of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), the country's largest veterans organization.
"The VFW fully concurs that those far from the fight are having an immediate impact on the battlefield in real-time," said Hamilton, who was wounded in combat in the Vietnam war. "But medals that can only be earned in direct combat must mean more than medals awarded in the rear."
The new medal sparked debate, anger and some ridicule in the blogosphere, with the military blog "Black Five" heaping scorn on the award, labeling it a "participation" trophy.
The satirical Duffel Blog imagined what one of the robotic aircraft would say about the medal.
"I hate to say it, but my human counterpart is a droneopotamus. He sits around in the Ground Control Station all day, eating Doritos, and posts a sticker on the door that says ‘Predator Pilot: Toughest Job in the Air Force.'"
The reaction to the award echoed a long-running debate inside the military, particularly the Air Force, about how to adapt to new realities in modern warfare, within a culture shaped by traditions from another era.
Writing in the Air and Space Power Journal last year, one Air Force officer argued the military needed to adjust its definition of combat and that there was little difference between a pilot dropping a bomb from a high altitude versus a drone pilot pulling the trigger from a remote location.
Major David Blair asked "what is the differential risk between 10,000 feet and 10,000 miles in current conflicts?
"When a manned aircraft with two spare engines scrapes the top of a combat zone, well outside the range of any realistic threat, why do we consider that scenario 'combat' yet deem a Predator firing a Hellfire in anger 'combat support'?" he wrote.
The military needs to send the message that "the difference that person makes is more important than the aircraft that he or she flies."