The Pentagon is considering awarding Distinguished Warfare Medals to the operators of increasingly popular military drones.
Army Institute of Heraldry head Charles V. Mugno told the US Commission of Fine Arts that although most combat honors require “boots on the ground,” tech operations such as drone combat and cyber warfare are becoming more prevalent, and are usually carried out by individuals based far away from the mission’s location. This “unique concept” medal—which would be placed in rank between the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Soldier’s Medal for exceptional conduct outside a combat zone—has not yet been officially endorsed, but six designs have been completed for the Commission to approve.
Originally, drone operators were US Air Force pilots; but as their use increased, the military started recruiting people with no flight experience, while still doing what it can to mesh them into the traditional mold. Drone operators are referred to as “pilots” and dress in the same green flight suit as their combat brethren. Though they never get in a plane, their operating stations resemble a cockpit dashboard.
All this has only strained relations between the two groups, according to Holloman Air Force Base student Aaron. Aaron, a former communications equipment mechanic, now operates drones. “There’s still a lot of animosity. You see people in a conventional aircrew that wonder why we get to wear the flight suits event though we don’t leave the ground, why do we need flight physicals, why do we get incentive pay—stuff like that.”
Luther (Trey) Turner III, who has done both jobs—flying combat operations in the Persian Gulf before changing to Predators in 2003—does not define his current position as “valorous.” “My understanding of the term is that you are faced with danger. And when I am sitting in a ground-control station thousands of miles away from the battlefield, that’s just not the case.” But he does believe it takes “bravery” to operate a drone, especially when your orders are to take lives. “In some cases, you are watching it play out live and in color,” Turner told the New York Times Magazine. “We’re not just playing video games here.”