You mess with military medals, you walk into a heavy minefield.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel found that out the hard way last year when he inherited an explosive controversy regarding a new medal designed to honor drone pilots and cyberwarriors.
The Distinguished Warfare Medal would have been placed above the Bronze Star in the official “order of precedence.”
That brought howls of outrage from groundpounders who found it unconscionable that troops who fight on computer screens far from the battlefield could receive a medal outranking an award for braving physical risk, even death.
Ultimately, Hagel made the right move and spiked the new medal. Now he’s made another good call in ordering a broad review of the entire universe of military medals and awards, which has remained largely unchanged since World War II.
In truth, the question of how to properly recognize drone pilots, cyberwarriors and other emerging skill sets of 21st-century warfare is hardly the only medals issue in need of discussion.
Others include whether, and how, to recognize troops struck by the “invisible wound” of PTSD and those wounded by terrorist attacks outside a combat zone; and how to speed up a creaky approval process that delivers medals months, or even years, after the actions they are meant to honor.
Troops ascribe great value to their awards, and changes in this area are not to be made lightly. Hagel, a former infantryman who earned two Purple Hearts in Vietnam, knows that. His call to undertake a holistic review may not deserve a medal, but it certainly deserves commendation.
Medals are supposed to mean something. They recognize hard work and sacrifice.
A retirement medal, honoring those whose careers hit or exceed 20 years of service, would do just that.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Steven Janotta, an infantryman and Iraq War vet, came up with the idea to award career service members as he mulled his impending retirement. He’s not out to add chest candy to his rack. Rather, he views it as a fitting coda for every soldier, airman, sailor or Marine who has accumulated at least two decades of service. If approved, he’d like to see the medal issued retroactively, so every veteran could be eligible.
Critics will undoubtedly cast off the idea as yet another award granted for just “showing up.” But that cynicism belies the actual dedication it takes to stick it out for 20 years. And given all the superfluous medals out there, this would actually have some real meaning.
Janotta wants to see it awarded on your retirement day, so you wouldn’t wear it often, but it would be a memento to recognize duty served.
His idea isn’t perfect — he initially wanted to make the medal second in precedence to only the Medal of Honor. Combat valor should not come second to serving 20 years. But Janotta’s heart is in the right place. And with leadership launching a complete medal review, this is one idea that warrants consideration.