US Drone Pilots Will Start Getting Awards, But Don’t Call Them Medals Quite Yet

US Drone Pilots Will Start Getting Awards, But Don’t Call Them Medals Quite Yet

Just as American soldiers can be awarded the Silver Star, some have long argued that remote operators of drones should be eligible for war medals as well. New reports indicate they might not be getting medals per se, but they will be getting some kind of award. Today, the New York Times reports that the Pentagon is expected to make an announcement that drone operators are indeed are going to be decorated with some kind of regalia. But the Military Times says that “distinction” might just be a pin that’s affixed to noncombat medals, instead of a new, standalone medal — one that’s been derided as the “Nintendo medal”. That pin could be a quarter-inch “R”, which stands for “remote”, similar to the existing “V” for “valour” device that’s already affixed to American medals.

This latest development adds intrigue to a long-standing debate as to whether drone pilots should be eligible for (noncombat) medals. On one side of the issue, some vets have opposed such a possible accolade, apparently calling it the “geek cross”, and didn’t want such an award to rank higher than combat medals. Drone pilots control UAVs from the safety of a remote control room far from the battlefield, so opponents think doesn’t match the heroism of those troops actually out on the ground.

Meanwhile, supporters of the change argue that the use of drones for intel-gathering or airstrikes has become so interwoven with modern-day warfare that their pilots’ contributions deserve to be acknowledged. It’s also a very hard job — the US Air Force has had a tough time retaining drone pilots because of intense stress that leads to PTSD.

American drone operations in the Middle East have been killing civilians for years, so they remain controversial. Still, in 2013, former Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta announced that drone pilots would receive a distinguished service medal, though that was swiftly overruled by his successor, Chuck Hagel.

The latest round of updates from Pentagon extends beyond drone piloting, too. The Military Times reports that operators who launch cyberattacks could be eligible for the new “R” device with today’s announcement, too. Welcome to 21st-century warfare, where everywhere is a battlefield.

[New York Times, Military Times]

Image: AP Photo/Eric Gay