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By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON, Feb 15 (Reuters) - Should U.S. drone pilots or cyber warriors thousands of miles from the battlefield be eligible for a more prestigious combat medal than soldiers wounded or killed in action?
The Pentagon concluded this week the answer is "yes" - at least in extraordinary circumstances, and announced the creation of the Distinguished Warfare Medal, outranking even the Bronze Star.
While supporters cheered America's nod to the changing nature of warfare, it has triggered an angry backlash with some veterans and active-duty troops upset over the most substantial shakeup in the hierarchy of military medals since World War Two.
Opponents say the new medal's rank is too high and sends a signal - inadvertently, perhaps - that the Pentagon does not sufficiently value the sacrifices of front-line troops.
For Brian Jopek, whose 20-year-old son, Ryan, earned a Bronze Star when he was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2006, the debate is intensely personal.
"To me it's just a slap in the face, not only for my son, me, other members of my family," Jopek, who also served in Iraq and is now a journalist in Wisconsin, told Reuters.
"But for anyone who's ever received (the Bronze Star) for actions in combat."
Jopek said he has written to President Barack Obama and to his congressman, hoping the policy can be reversed.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars, which describes itself as America's largest combat veterans' organization, strongly objected to the decision.
"Medals that can only be earned in direct combat must mean more than medals awarded in the rear," John Hamilton, the VFW's national commander, said in a statement.
Websites and blogs, including the VFW's Facebook page, were filled with angry comments, some calling the new medal a "joke."
Advocates at the Pentagon and beyond say the new medal is playing catch-up with reality.
"I've seen firsthand how modern tools, like remotely piloted platforms and cyber systems, have changed the way wars are fought," said outgoing Defense Secretary and former CIA Director Leon Panetta, announcing the medal on Wednesday.
"This award recognizes the reality of the kind of technological warfare that we are engaged in, in the 21st century."
Peter Singer, an expert on the new technologies in warfare at the Brookings Institution think tank, said it was an inevitability, noting there are now 20,000 unmanned systems, or drones, in the air or on the ground.
"The U.S. Air Force now trains more unmanned systems operators than it does manned fighter plane and bomber plane pilots combined," he said.
Juliet Beyler, the acting director of officer and enlisted personnel management in the Pentagon, said candidates for the medal could include a service member involved in a cyber attack on a specific military target.
"This is for direct impacts," she told the Pentagon's American Forces Press Service on Friday, adding the award was retroactive to Sept. 11, 2001.
NO VALOR REQUIRED
To put it in context, the Distinguished Warfare Medal is the ninth highest medal awarded by the Pentagon, higher than the Purple Heart for troops wounded in battle.
Chuck Hagel, the former Republican senator nominated to become the next U.S. defense secretary, was wounded in Vietnam and was awarded two Purple Hearts, for example.
The new medal is the only combat medal that a military service member can receive without physically being in the same geographic area where combat took place.
Previously, drone pilots who remotely guide missiles against important targets in countries like Pakistan or Yemen would not qualify for combat awards because their acts technically lacked "valor" - a key requirement.
Valor, as defined by the military, involves extraordinary acts of heroism "while engaged in direct combat with an enemy with exposure to enemy hostilities and personal risk."
The new medal is higher than the Bronze Star with a "V" for valor. Only 2.5 percent of the more than 160,000 Bronze Stars awarded by the Army since Sept. 11, 2001, have been for valor, according to Pentagon data.
Medal of Honor recipient and Vietnam veteran Paul Bucha told Reuters the decision could affect morale, and noted the significance of the Bronze Star in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
"Are you saying that guy in the Pentagon did something I could not have done, even though I was running around in the desert? Where people could shoot at me?," Bucha said, summing up the views of many veterans.
"People are going to be outraged." (Editing by Warren Strobel and Mohammad Zargham)