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Medal for cyber troops draws jibes, dismay and 'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot's

Zingers about the Distinguished Warfare Medal, fired with the same deadly accuracy as drone strikes unleashed from computer screens, mock the U.S. military’s latest ribbon as “The Purple Buttocks” and “The Chairborne.”

A website about war-zone burn pits offers a photoshopped version of the medal as a glossy, gold Xbox controller. At Stars and Stripes, one writer quipped the fresh decoration — announced Feb. 13 by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to honor troops who direct cyberattacks and drone strikes — has ignited “an avalanche of Whiskey Tango Foxtrots.” And at an online store run by current and ex-military members, retailers joke that any recipients will have earned the award from “the safety of some air conditioned box while sipping on their mocha-frapachino [sic] that they picked up on the way in to work that day, and waiting for Papa John’s to show up with lunch.”


The shrapnel-packed jabs seem to be fueled as much by the non-combat medal's mere existence as by the decoration's rank: the Distinguished Warfare Medal is slotted by military brass slightly above the Bronze Star, long the fourth-highest combat award granted for heroism and/or meritorious service in battle.



Many of the so-called "Distant Warfare Medal" critics — and cutups — fully acknowledge the strategic value of cyber experts within the U.S. armed forces, especially as President President Barack Obama on Friday deployed American service members and drone aircraft to the African country of Niger, where they could be used to support a French counterterrorism mission in neighboring Mali.

Still, some can't help but smirk at the thought of a keyboard clicker eventually being pinned with a ribbon. And there are those in the service who thought the first mentions they read about the medal were a just a dash of military satire. After all, for men and women in uniform, sarcasm and dark humor are as common as camo and Hesco (a protective barrier). 

"I thought it was a joke at first," said Marine Sgt. Jeremy Lattimer, 26, who earned a Bronze Star for his actions in Afghanistan's Helmand Province where, in one three-hour stretch on Nov. 22, 2009, he led his squad as they maneuvered through enemy machine gun fire then helped another squad escape an ambush.

"When I saw that this has a higher rating than the Bronze Star, it seemed a little bit extreme," added Lattimer, reached by phone at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he's receiving treatment for a traumatic brain injury sustained in combat. "Whenever you start getting into (awarding) valor for someone in a box behind a computer in who knows where, I think that's a point where it starts rubbing people the wrong way."

Meanwhile, some military families are so disturbed by the new medal that punchlines seem out of line. 

Courtesy of Veronica Ortiz-Rivera

Marine Staff Sgt. Javier Ortiz-Rivera was heavily decorated in life. After dying in action, he was awarded the Bronze Star. In 2009, he and his wife, Veronica (left), attended the Marine Corps Ball.

Near Camp Lejeune, N.C., where Marine Staff Sgt. Javier Ortiz-Rivera was based before his 2010 IED-blast death in Afghanistan, his wife, Veronica, speaks softly and somberly about the value of the Bronze Star that the Marine earned posthumously. 

"To know that somebody sitting at a computer who never risked their life is going to get something that’s worth more, it almost puts less of a value on what my husband did and what so many other men have done," Ortiz-Rivera said. "To take that new medal and give it a higher classification than the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart is disrespectful. Maybe I’m just biased because my husband was killed in combat.

"It feels like it almost strips away a little of his heroism, honestly, although he is and always will be a hero to us," she added. "I'm not at a point where I can joke about" this new medal.

And for Army veteran Andrew O'Brien, who served in Afghanistan in 2008 and 2009, any humorous takes about any medals — no matter how they are earned — simply feels wrong, he said. 

"We are all on the same team," O'Brien said. "I believe they (drone operators) deserve medals just as much as anyone else and recognition for the things they do. I also feel (the humor) is an attack on them for what they do. To mimic a video game as an award? We are all part of the same fight."