US officials urged to downgrade new medal honoring drone pilots

Distinguished Warfare Medal outranks Bronze Star

SAN DIEGO - A petition drive is under way urging the White House to downgrade a new military medal that honors drone pilots.

The bravery and sacrifice of troops in combat is recognized through various medals. However, some say the newest military medal is too distinguished.

The newly created Distinguished Warfare Medal will be awarded to drone pilots, whose remotely controlled missions have been key in taking out terrorist targets.

In a news release, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said, "We should … have the ability to honor extraordinary actions that make a true difference in combat operations, even if those actions are physically removed from the fight."

The new medal is an honor that ranks above a Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

"This medal sends a message that the service of drone pilots is greater than the sacrifice of combat veterans," said Vince Vasquez, a policy analyst who works at a local think tank that has studied military issues.

Vasquez just signed a new online petition asking President Barack Obama to demote the medal.

For the White House to consider taking action, 100,000 signatures will be needed by mid-March.

Many military veterans groups have criticized the new medal. On one military blog, the medal is depicted as an Xbox controller.

Richard Gilbert, who served as a Marine sniper in Iraq, said something feels wrong -- the symbolic weight of the new medal.

"I don't feel like that individual's life is in danger whenever they're piloting a drone," said Gilbert.

Top military leaders say the new medal is a nod to the growing importance of high-tech warfare.

Others say it's coming at the expense of what's most important.

"It's just an affront on what I think military service is," said Vasquez.

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