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March 12th, 2013
07:18 PM ET

Pentagon reviewing high honor for drone ops

What makes a hero? That's the question at the center of a military controversy - should drone operators be eligible for medals that outrank Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts?

That was the plan, but today, the Defense Department changed course, calling for a review of the new Distinguished Warfare Medal.

Pentagon spokesman George Little said production of the medal had been halted so Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey can conduct the review. He is expected to present his findings in 30 days.

The move came under intense pressure from veterans and members of Congress.

The question is what an extraordinary act of service looks like. Of course, there have been heroics on the battlefield since the beginning of time, but can a soldier show valor while waging war via remote control?

"People losing their lives on the battlefield, that's where the attention should go in my perhaps narrow view, but I think most veterans do agree with me on that," said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla.

The medal is so new it hasn't actually been awarded to anyone yet. But the outrage came over the fact that it would outrank those medals given to vets who faced bodily harm.

"They're good people and they are doing a good job, but they're doing it from a remote area where the level of danger is not in the same realm as certainly it would be with a Bronze Star or a Purple Heart," said Inhofe, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The Distinguished Warfare Medal was created by recently retired Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who said it was time to honor soldiers fighting on a new kind of front.

"I've always felt, having seen the great work that they do, day in and day out, that those who performed in an outstanding manner should be recognized," said Panetta. "Unfortunately, medals that they otherwise might be eligible for simply did not recognize that kind of contribution."

But the move was roundly criticized, and even mocked in Comedy Central's "The Kroll Show"

All of it left newly minted Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel backed into a corner. Hagel, himself a two-time recipient of the Purple Heart, wrote to Congress last week, saying he supported the medal.

The medal "reflects the evolving nature of our warfare" he wrote, while "it in no way degrades or minimizes" other acts of valor.

But today, he was singing a different tune.

"Production of the medal has stopped, no one has been nominated for this medal, no one is in training for this medal, so we do have time to make a final decision," said Pentagon spokesperson George Little.

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