This post was originally published at Business Insider on Feb. 15, 2013 as “Award For Drone Pilots May Be The Most Ridiculous Thing The Pentagon Could Do”.
The new Distinguished Warfare Medal signals two things — the drones are here to stay, and sitting in an easy chair and pushing a button is quite literally valued above the battlefield valor of military heroes.
Mainly for drone operators and personnel who initiate cyber attacks against enemy networks, the new medal will be awarded to servicemembers that demonstrate “extraordinary achievement” related to military operations after 9/11, according to an official memo. In the ranking of awards, the DWM will be above a Bronze Star, but lower than a Silver Star — the nation’s third-highest award.
For context, here is one excerpt from a Bronze Star award citation out of Afghanistan:
“As Staff Sergeant Castellanos returned to his vehicle, his rifle ran out of ammunition. Staff Sergeant Castellanos removed his M9 pistol and eliminated an enemy fighter that was advancing on him less than 10 meters away.”
“With complete disregard for his safety, Sergeant Dicken immediately requested his Pararescue team be inserted near the un-secured crash site to start treating survivors as real-time intelligence indicated insurgents were moving to attack his aircraft. Sergeant Dicken quickly established security around the burning aircraft and while searching for survivors, he located three, all with life threatening injures and one trapped in his seat with fire burning towards him. Sergeant Dicken began efforts to free the trapped patient as ammunition and flares on board the helicopter ignited.”
As far as awards go in the military, a Bronze Star is many times a solid achievement, indicating a level of proficiency that shows a servicemember going above and beyond in their duties. When its given for combat action — which citations often phrase as “heroic achievement in ground combat operations” — it comes along with a valor distinguishing device, called a “Combat V.”
The big problem comes when an award can be earned, and held above awards like the two above, by someone often sitting far from the battlefield in an air-conditioned facility.
And the Air Force already has awards lower in ranking than the Bronze Star, that still recognize “extraordinary achievement” — the Air Force Achievement Medal and Air Force Commendation Medal.
Many combat veterans I spoke with are troubled by the recent announcement:
“As a Navy & Marine Corps Achievement Medal (with Combat V) and Purple Heart recipient, this new medal is nothing more than a slap in the face for my troubles,” Eddie Hoffmann, a Marine infantryman who was wounded in Iraq, told me. “There is a measure of pride that is associated with earning certain awards and recognizing service-members sitting behind a computer screen in a controlled environment over those who are putting their lives on the line daily on the front lines is a travesty. This will do nothing more than negatively impact what little morale is still present in deployed units.”
“As a Bronze Star (with V) and Purple Heart Recipient who lost his leg, this is spitting in my face,” said Gunnery Sergeant Dave Boire, a Marine veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan.
But there is plenty of grumbling within the Air Force, the service with the most members that would benefit from the move.
“I understand the [movement] with unmanned drones, computers, and electronic warfare and this is an intent to legitimize that,” one Airman told me, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But it shouldn’t be on that tier.”
“Congratulations, you’re expert level of the Microsoft Flight Simulator,” he added, only half-jokingly.
Another Airman told Business Insider about the hardships of long overseas deployments: ”There are guys out there for months and years at a time. They [drone pilots] are contributing to the overall strategy, but they are not over there.”
The U.S. military guides its drones from seven air bases in the United States, as well as several locations abroad, including one in the East African nation of Djibouti.
“When you put it up there with the Bronze Star, you are recognizing a person with facing adversity and hardship. You’re placing them up there with folks like Chris Kyle and Marcus Luttrell (both highly decorated Navy SEALs),” one told me, “and they shouldn’t even be in the same league.”
Still, there are some who defend the move.
“A pilot is a pilot, whether they are physically or remotely flying an aircraft. They are still serving their country proudly and defending the Constitution of the United States. It is a very limited, select few that can even be considered and qualify to become a pilot, let alone go through the necessary training,” said Nicholas Albino, an Airman with over ten years of service. “Before criticizing drone pilots, one should become educated on what they actually do before judging. I support any awards for drone pilots,” although Albino later conceded that they should be ranked and structured around how big a sacrifice they made.
“We are much more likely to be recipients of this award than others, and I think it is a horrible idea. The type of actions that it proposes to recognize are already recognized by service Achievement and Commendation medals. New medals are not what we need in the service right now,” An active-duty enlisted sailor who works in Cyber Warfare, told Business Insider. ”The ones we have cover the spectrum of martial achievement and sacrifice, and to shoehorn this in between two of the highest awards is a travesty, and a dishonoring of those who have achieved any military award.”
The issue is summed up quite well by Nick Palmisciano, CEO of Ranger Up:
“Drone pilots absolutely deserve to be awarded for exemplary achievement. I have no issue with them receiving a medal specific to their job,” the former Army Captain told me. “That being said, there can be no valor without danger, and a drone pilot faces no danger, only stress. Placing such an award above the Bronze Star is pure comedy and just juxtaposes the stark differences between views of the Pentagon Leadership compared to those who are actually doing the job. I’d suspect drone pilots don’t even want the award with such a high order or precedence. In such a position it will constitute a personal embarrassment for the recipient and a standing joke for the rest of the military. Keep the award. Change the position.”