The Grunt Speaks: The Distinguished Warfare Medal

On Wednesday, 13 February, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced the new Distinguished Warfare Medal (DWM), which will be awarded to individuals for “extraordinary achievement” related to a military operation that occurred after Sept. 11, 2001. Why did an innocuous announcement, and one that seems to seek to recognize the achievements of service members, cause such a crap-storm with veterans and veterans’ groups?

No sooner had the ink dried on the announcement, than my colleague at school, “The Major,” walked into my classroom and denounced the whole thing as a complete boondoggle orchestrated by that madhouse on the Potomac! “The Major” and I are “old school,” from the old “black-boot” army. We’re veterans of Vietnam-era light infantry operations, in the boonies, up close, personal.

What really stuck in The Major’s craw, I believe, was that the DWM ranked higher than the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, awards that we both hold and awards that a soldier has to get “up close and personal” with the enemy to earn. The Major suggested that next the DOD would start handing out Purple Hearts and GI Insurance for guys whose avatars were “WIA”or “KIA” in cyber war games.

One issue is that the DWM is characterized as a “combat medal,” but it doesn’t require the recipient risk his or her life. In fact the soldier doesn’t have to be in the hemisphere as the “enemy.”

This seems to be in response to the changing concept of “combat” from the dirt, smoke and blood of a physical battle field, to fighting for dominance in cyber space and the ability to apply combat force by the use of missiles and drones, while the operator is hundreds of miles away operating from a high-tech console, seated in a comfortable chair in an air-conditioned facility, surrounded by the sounds of elevator music, wondering what’s going to be served for dinner at home or at the club after quitting time at five.

An essential question is whether the “cyber / drone” scenario is “combat.”

I believe the answer is yes. It’s offensive and defensive operations in support of a military mission, in which a soldier may have to apply deadly force against an enemy in order to achieve the assigned mission. Dirty or clean, dangerous or not, that’s “combat,” folks.

A second consideration is whether such combat poses any danger to the soldier / operator. How much “valor” is required in blocking a cyber-attack? Does the operator of a flying drone put his or her life on the line like an infantryman assaulting an enemy held position, or patrolling an area where there is a danger of ambush or IED attack?

The answer to that is no! As my colleague, “The Major,” quipped, if a drone operator falls out of the chair or gets a paper cut, what next? A Purple Heart?

Before I go any further, let me put a stake in the ground on one thing. I support any deserved recognition of the service of soldiers. Those who dedicate their lives, or a few years of it, to the service of their country and to the safety and welfare of its citizens deserve to be recognized.

Now back to the DWM issue.

First, I cannot support the DWM being a higher ranked award than the Purple Heart. Literally, a soldier has to be injured by enemy action to be awarded the Purple Heart. I’m with The Major on this. By sacrifice and valor required, the Purple Heart ranks higher than the DWM.

Second, what about the Bronze Star Medal (BSM)?  This is a bit more complicated because the BSM is really two different awards, one for service, the other for valor.

The BSM for service is an Army Commendation Medal on steroids. It’s the army’s way of saying “thanks a lot,” usually to officers and senior NCO’s. Its award does not necessitate valor, or even combat. Most officers who served a basic combat tour in Nam, twelve months in country, got one of these, regardless of assignment. So, subordinating the DWM to the BSM for service doesn’t ruffle my feathers one little bit.

The BSM with a “V” Device, for valor, is a different story. This meant valor in combat, something “above and beyond.” I won mine in 1969 for slugging it out with an NVA company for six hours while part of a four-man ranger team… and getting all my guys home safe. Try that sometime from a drone console! So, subordinating the BSM with V to the DWM… no way! Doesn’t make sense.

So, here’s what I think!

Definitely keep the DWM! Whacking bad guys with drones and not having terrorists using my credit cards to buy stuff is highly desired. If soldiers do that well, pin on the DWM’s!  Throw in a few Oak Leaf Clusters. That’s successful and meritorious Cyber-Combat!

But, subordinate the DWM to the both the Purple Heart and the BSM with V. Whether the DWM ranks above the BSM for service (no V device), is max nix to me.

I could live with that. So, could The major, I imagine… as long as they don’t start giving out awards for paper cuts, eye strain, and missing Happy Hour at the club.