A proposed medal honoring the contributions of drone pilots was scaled back Monday after lawmakers and veterans groups expressed concern that it would diminish existing awards for those who fight in traditional combat zones.
The Distinguished Service Medal would have been ranked higher than the Bronze Star or the Purple Heart -- both medals meant to recognize unusual acts of bravery and heroism in physical combat. The new medal would have been available for military personal operating machines that often are thousands of miles from active combat.
But on Monday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel wrote in a statement that "misconceptions regarding the precedence of the award were distracting from its original purpose."
Instead, Mr. Hagel has proposed a new "distinguishing device" -- instead of a unique medal -- that can be affixed to existing medals.
"The medal was originally conceived to be awarded only to those men and women who, while serving off the battlefield, have an extraordinary impact on combat operations," Mr. Hagel wrote.
The debate about how to appropriately honor military personal who operate increasingly virtual instruments of war comes amid criticism of the Obama administration for keeping many details of the drone program secret.
Mr. Hagel faced opposition from U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, who co-sponsored a House bill that would have blocked implementation of the medal, and U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who wrote a letter to then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.
Mr. Murphy said he is satisfied with the decision to scrap the idea of a separate medal.
"I think it's appropriate that the Pentagon is changing their mind on this," Mr. Murphy said. "All along we thought it was worthy of recognition. But in a noncombat situation, it should not be above the Bronze Star or Purple Heart."
Marty Callaghan, a spokesman for The American Legion -- a national veterans organization -- said: "Whatever happened before, we're happy Secretary Hagel brought this up for review. They're going to make it a device, which is fine by us."
U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, agreed. "Secretary Hagel's decision to revisit this decision was the right thing to do," he wrote in an email. "Our highest military medals have always recognized those who have risked life and limb in service to our country, and that's the way it should stay."
Ron Conley, director of veterans affairs for Allegheny County and an Air Force veteran, expressed similar sentiment. "People who sit there and guide these drones do go through stress and maybe even experience [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder]," he said. "But at the same time, it should never overshadow those who are in actual combat and being shot at by the enemy."
Alex Zimmerman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3909 or on Twitter @AGZimmerman. Sean Hamill contributed.