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Pentagon scraps medal for drone pilots after uproar

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks during a briefing on the Defense Department's FY2014 budget at the Pentagon in Washington April 10
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks during a briefing on the Defense Department's FY2014 budget at the Pentagon in Washington April 10

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon said on Monday it will not issue a new medal to honor drone pilots and cyber warriors after uproar over the decision to rank this decoration above some medals given to troops wounded or killed in battle.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel rolled back a decision by his predecessor, Leon Panetta, who two months ago unveiled a "Distinguished Warfare Medal" outranking the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, awarded to wounded troops.

Hagel, a Vietnam veteran with two Purple Hearts, said instead the Pentagon would create a "distinguishing device" that can be affixed to existing medals.

Opponents had decried Panetta's high placement of the medal, which was meant to be a nod to the changing nature of warfare and represented the most substantial shakeup in the hierarchy of military medals since World War Two.

Brian Jopek, whose 20-year-old son, Ryan, earned a Bronze Star when he was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2006, had branded Panetta's decision a "slap in the face.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars, which describes itself as America's largest combat veterans' organization, also strongly objected to medal's ranking.

Hagel said a review he ordered shortly after taking over from Panetta in February showed that the revision in the ranking of medals was "distracting" from the original purpose of awarding the Distinguished Warfare Medal.

"I agree with my predecessor, Leon Panetta, that such recognition is justly warranted for these men and women and thank him for raising the level of awareness of their hard work and critical contributions," Hagel said in a statement.

Congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina praised Hagel's decision, calling it a change "welcomed by millions of concerned veterans."

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; editing by Jackie Frank)

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