12-07-2016  12:45 am      •     

(CNN) -- An award for drone operators that drew an angry response from lawmakers was downgraded to a lesser distinction Monday by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.

The Distinguished Warfare Medal, which was approved last month by Hagel's predecessor, Leon Panetta, was to recognize "extraordinary direct impacts on combat operations." But the honor denotes that the action is not bound by a "geographic limitation," meaning operators on unmanned drones would have been eligible.

Some lawmakers expressed concern the medal would be placed above those for battlefield valor, including the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. In March, the production of the medal was halted so Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey could conduct a review.

"The Joint Chiefs of Staff, with the concurrence of the service secretaries, have recommended the creation of a new distinguishing device that can be affixed to existing medals to recognize the extraordinary actions of this small number of men and women," Hagel said Monday. "I agree with the Joint Chiefs' findings, and have directed the creation of a distinguishing device instead of a separate medal."

The exact nature of the distinction remained unclear Monday - Hagel said he was directing service secretaries and veterans' organizations to define the parameters for eligibility for the award. Those details will come in the next 90 days, Hagel said.

"The service men and women, who operate and support our remotely piloted aircraft, operate in cyber, and others are critical to our military's mission of safeguarding the nation," Hagel wrote. "I again want to thank my predecessor, Leon Panetta, for raising the need to ensure that these men and women are recognized for their contributions."

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