Will the Way Military Medals are Awarded Change?

In light of recent criticism on the lack of awards for heroism in events like the shooting at Fort hood and the abandoning of plans to create an award specific for drone pilots, the Pentagon has begun three different reviews on the way military medals are evaluated and awarded. The evaluation and method for awarding military medals has not changed very dramatically in a very long time, and some feel that the changes are due, while others feel that the way it’s been working has been fine so far and should be allowed to continue. Chuck Hagel, Defense Secretary, signed a letter last week that formally ordered the comprehensive evaluation and study of military awards and how they are awarded, with a primary focus being whether the awarding accurately and comprehensively recognizes valor at all levels of the military and whether the process of the actual awarding is appropriate for the awards.


Hagel explained his reasoning for ordering the study now as it is the perfect time. The United States has just come out of it’s longest war and it stands to reason that we will not only have plenty of cases to provide a very accurate and compelling study but also that there may be many servicemembers who are worthy of commendation that have not yet received it because of the current system of awarding the medals. A letter from Hagel to the Joint Chiefs and senior Pentagon leaders read, “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.”

In addition to Hagel’s reviews of how all medals are evaluated and awarded, Congress has also ordered two different reviews specifically to evaluate how the Purple Heart is awarded. These reviews have been instituted because of disagreements on whether the victims from the Fort Hood shootings and a recruiting center at Little Rock should be awarded the medal. The Purple Heart is awarded to those wounded or killed in the line of duty. Hagel’s broad reviews will also directly look at what ways could be developed to give recognition to servicemembers who use drones to conduct or affect combat operations using remote technology. More and more military uses for remote technology are being developed, and it makes sense to find ways to recognize those who use the technology to its most effective.

This is not the first time that a medal has been attempted to be created to honor troops who use remote technologies to affect the course of combat; Leon Panetta, former Defense Secretary attempted to create the Distinguished Warfare Medal, which would be specific to drone operators and cyber warriors. There was very open and intense opposition to the medal, mostly from veterans groups and members of congress, and Hagel canceled the creation of the medal. The biggest cause for concern among veterans groups and congress about the medal is the Distinguished Warfare Medal would have been ranked higher than the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Veterans groups maintained that a medal for using remote technologies should not be ranked higher than those medals.

There is expected to be widespread support for the institution of a medal for soldiers who use remote technologies, as long as it does not rank higher than other combat awards such as the Purple Heart, as well as for expanding the application of the Purple Heart to cover soldiers wounded in shootings such as Fort Hood. From Jon Soltz, an Iraq war veteran and chairman of votevets.org: “These reviews are great news. Most of all, they need to take into consideration the thoughts of those in uniform, regarding the medals…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.”

Changes are certainly coming to the way medals are awarded in the military, and with 5 separate studies being conducted on various medals, there should be sufficient information for Hagel and military leaders to make the best decisions on what changes to make.

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