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New military medal for drone operators under fire: Defense chief Hagel orders review

Amid a firestorm of protests from veterans’ groups and lawmakers, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has ordered a review of a new military medal for pilots of unmanned drones.

The Distinguished Warfare Medal for drone operators was ordered last month by former Defense Sectary Leon Panetta, but it was rankedabove the medals awarded service members who fought under fire on the front lines, the Bronze Star with combat V and the Purple Heart.

Critics among veterans and on Capitol Hill argued any medal for drone operators thousands of miles from the battle zone should be ranked below the traditional combat awards.

Defense officials said Tuesday that production of the new medal has been halted pending review by Hagel, who himself was twice wounded and earned two Purple Hearts as a combat infantry squad leader in the Vietnam war. Hagel took over as defense secretary from Panetta last month.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, will lead the review, Pentagon spokesman George Little said Tuesday.

"In light of concerns about the medal's place in the order of precedence, Secretary Hagel will work with the senior leadership to review the order of precedence and associated matters, and the secretary has asked that Chairman Dempsey lead this review and report back in 30 days," Little said.

"The fact of the matter is that production of the medal has stopped. No one has been nominated for this medal. No one is in training for this medal. So we do have time to make a final decision."

The new medal was the first combat-related award created since the Bronze Star in 1944 during World War II. The Distinguished Warfare Medal was placed just above the Bronze Star but lower than the Silver Star, the third-highest combat award.

Defense officials said that the ranking of the new medal recognized the changing nature of warfare. A Defense Department press release said that in addition to drone operators, a possible recipient could be "a soldier at Fort Meade, Md., who detects and thwarts a cyberattack on a DOD computer system."

"I've seen firsthand how modern tools, like remotely piloted platforms and cyber systems, have changed the way wars are fought," Panetta said in announcing the medal. "And they've given our men and women the ability to engage the enemy and change the course of battle, even from afar."

But the thought of placing a medal for drone pilots — operating their aircraft from secure sites far from the battlefield — above medals for members of the military actually under fire drew a barrage of criticism from veterans and their families.

"I thought it was a joke at first," Marine Sgt. Jeremy Lattimer, 26, who earned a Bronze Star for his actions in Afghanistan, told NBC News. He’s now receiving treatment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for a traumatic brain injury sustained in combat.

Legislation has been introduced in the U.S. House to place the medal below the Purple Heart.

Jim Miklaszewski is NBC News' chief Pentagon correspondent. Courtney Kube is an NBC News' Pentagon producer. NBC News contributor Bill Briggs contributed to this report.

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