So medals would be awarded for sitting safely ensconced in a bunker onThe Pentagon is considering awarding a Distinguished Warfare Medal to drone pilots who work on military bases often far removed from the battlefield. . . .Army Institute of Heraldry chief Charles] Mugno said most combat decorations require “boots on the ground” in a combat zone, but he noted that “emerging technologies” such as drones and cyber combat missions are now handled by troops far removed from combat.The Pentagon has not formally endorsed the medal, but Mugno’s institute has completed six alternate designs for commission approval. . . .The proposed medal would rank between the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Soldier’s Medal for exceptional conduct outside a combat zone.
The Air Force has been working to bridge the divide between these two groups of fliers. First off, drone operators are called pilots, and they wear the same green flight suits as fighter pilots, even though they never get in a plane. Their operating stations look like dashboards in a cockpit.
Luther (Trey) Turner III, a retired colonel who flew combat missions during the gulf war before he switched to flying Predators in 2003, said that he doesn’t view his combat experience flying drones 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 said, “I firmly believe it takes bravery to fly a U.A.V.” — unmanned aerial vehicle — “particularly when you’re called upon to take someone’s life. In some cases, you are watching it play out live and in color.” As more than one pilot at Holloman told me, a bit defensively, “We’re not just playing video games here.”
At first, many pilots resisted the advance of drones, viewing them as nothing but a robotic replacement for highly trained fighter jocks. . . . Now, given the high profile and future prospects of drones, pilots are lining up to operate them, volunteering for an intensive, one-year training course that includes simulated missions. “There is more enthusiasm for the job,” says Lt. Gen. David Deptula, a fighter pilot who ran the Air Force’s surveillance drone program until 2010. “Many pilots are excited about operating these things.”For a new generation of young guns, the experience of piloting a drone is not unlike the video games they grew up on. Unlike traditional pilots, who physically fly their payloads to a target, drone operators kill at the touch of a button, without ever leaving their base – a remove that only serves to further desensitize the taking of human life. (The military slang for a man killed by a drone strike is “bug splat,” since viewing the body through a grainy-green video image gives the sense of an insect being crushed.)As drone pilot Lt. Col. Matt Martin recounts in his book Predator, operating a drone is “almost like playing the computer game Civilization“ – something straight out of “a sci-fi novel.” After one mission, in which he navigated a drone to target a technical college being occupied by insurgents in Iraq, Martin felt “electrified” and “adrenalized,” exulting that “we had shot the technical college full of holes, destroying large portions of it and killing only God knew how many people.“ Only later did the reality of what he had done sink in. “I had yet to realize the horror,” Martin recalls.