'The Nintendo Medal'? New Military Award for Drone Pilots Draws Hill Protest

Department of Defense | AP

The Pentagon's newest military honor, symbolized by a two-inch bronze medallion, has sparked fierce debate over the nation's growing corps of drone pilots and cyberwarriors and how to commend their service, which happens far from an actual battlefield.

The Distinguished Warfare Medal, approved by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last month, is the military's first new combat-related medal in nearly 70 years. It is intended to recognize extraordinary contributions to combat operations by a service member from afar and will rank as the eighth highest individual award behind the Medal of Honor.

But placement of the new medal in ahead of the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, which are given for valor in the line of fire, has created significant stir.

Critics have panned it as the "Chair-borne Medal," "the Nintendo Medal," "Distant Warfare Medal" and "the Purple Buttocks," alluding to fact that computer-based warriors do their work from a chair, among other names.

Top veterans groups and a rare bipartisan alliance on Capitol Hill are intensely lobbying the Pentagon and President Obama to downgrade the award.

"We are supportive of recognizing and rewarding such extraordinary service, but in the absence of the service member exposing him or herself to imminent mortal danger, we cannot support the DWM taking precedence above the Bronze Star and Purple Heart," a bipartisan group of 48 lawmakers wrote new Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Monday.

"Possibility of death or grievous bodily harm" are key factors that should elevate recipients of those awards above others who didn't face those risks, the group wrote.

The letter was penned by 34 Republicans and 14 Democrats, including Republican Reps. Joe Wilson of South Carolina and Darrell Isa of California and Democratic Reps. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Susan Davis of California.

Officials with the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars said they have already been pressing the administration to downgrade the award, saying that bestowing a higher-ranked medal to service members who fought from "behind a desk" is disrespectful to those serving in harm's way.

So far the administration has shown no sign of backing down.

Last month, in one of his final public events before retiring, Secretary Panetta hailed creation of the new medal as a reflection of an evolution in modern warfare and of the growing importance of the drones and cyberwarfare strategies.

"The medal provides distinct, department-wide recognition for the extraordinary achievements that directly impact on combat operations, but that do not involve acts of valor or physical risk that combat entails," Panetta said.

"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," he said. "Unfortunately, medals that they otherwise might be eligible for simply did not recognize that kind of contribution."

A White House official declined to comment on the criticism. Obama, who has significantly increased drone warfare during his administration, on Tuesday awarded two purple hearts to wounded service members at Walter Reed military medical center in Washington.