I have long been a believer in the power of public opinion. Singly people may not have much power, but thousands, millions of them expressing their opinion can indeed make an impact.
That happened recently and reached to the highest level of the Pentagon. Here's how. Shortly before former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta resigned, he approved a new medal to be called the Distinguished Warfare Medal.
Sounds innocent enough. Service members constantly put themselves in harm's way, do great deeds for their country, and should be rewarded.
Drones have been much in the news for several years. These are small, unmanned flying objects that carry lots of explosives and highly classified technical equipment. They are targeted against high value targets, a button is pushed on the other side of the earth, and BOOM, another bad guy meets his maker.
So someone, after much study, convinced Panetta that those who "fly" the drones should get a medal. Sounds reasonable enough, until Panetta approved it to rank higher than the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. That didn't sound quite so good to thousands of military personnel who daily put their lives on the line in a combat zone.
Panetta left before the firestorm hit, so it was inherited by his unsuspecting successor, Chuck Hagel. Both the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion came out strongly against the medal, not so much for it being approved, but for where it would rank in precedence.
A Bronze Star and Purple Heart can only be earned in a combat zone, and to award someone half a planet away a higher award did not seem fair to those who are, say, somewhat closer to the hot action.
So Hagel, a decorated Army infantry veteran from the Vietnam War, ordered a study. And while the super-quick study was going on, the pundits had a letter writing heyday. The weekly newspaper Army Times had several letters in each issue, all objecting not to the medal, but to its precedence.
It was inevitable that cartoons would soon fill the Internet. Ret. Maj. Gen. Ken Bowra, now with the State Department in Saudi Arabia, forwarded a cartoon that showed a drone "pilot" lying on the floor in front of his computer screen showing a drone. The caption read like an award citation, saying "Experiencing complete failure, Jack ejected from his Predator aircraft and landed roughly, earning him also a Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Ctross."
In other words, Jack fell out of his chair while looking at his computer and, since the "Drone Medal" would rank higher than a Purple Heart, he was put in for one of those also.
After what seemed to be not much study at all, a headline in Army Times read "DoD rethinks 'Nintendo medal.'" In its very short non-lifetime, the hapless medal earned at least two nicknames, Drone Medal and Nintendo Medal.
Page 2 of 2 - A short notice in the Washington Post on April 16 was headlined "Cyberwarrior (a third nickname) Medal is cancelled by Hagel."
Only two months after it was announced and criticism from the field poured in, the perhaps well intentioned medal was no more. I'd love to get one for future historical displays, but no article I read said it ever reached production. At least I've got a couple of full-size color pictures, which is likely as close as I'll ever get to seeing the real thing.
And I'm assuming the mythical "Jack" who fell out of his comfortable chair 10,000 miles from a combat area won't be getting his Purple Heart, either.
Public opinion carried the day once again.
John Reichley is a retired Army officer and retired Department of the Army civilian employee.