Pentagon to Consider Whether Drone Pilots Deserve Top Military Honors

PHOTO: A student pilot and sensor operator man the controls of a MQ-9 Reaper in a ground-based cockpit during a training mission flown from Hancock Field Air National Guard Base, Syracuse, New York, June 6, 2012.

Jessie Spooner had just witnessed an Afghan detainee slash open his roommate's face with a set of handcuffs.

"I knew the next move would be going for the throat," said Spooner, a former Navy second class petty officer. "He was going to die."

Before the detainee got a chance to make that move, Spooner pounced, pulling him off his roommate and saving his life. Actions like that earned Spooner a Navy Achievement Medal.

On the other hand, drone pilots like Maj. Ted Shultz spend their time in a control room far away from the line of battle. They survey the surrounding area and can protect ground troops from enemy fire. But the awards available to Shultz are fewer and harder to get.

The touchy subject of whether to give drone pilots the same kind of medal as foot soldiers and pilots of manned aircraft is expected to come up in June when the Department of Defense begins a review of the military medal award process. Among the issues up for debate will be how to compare the work of drone pilots like Schultz, who do their work far from the line of battle, to the work of foot soldiers like Spooner.

"They don't just give those awards away," Spooner said in a recent interview with ABC News. "There was a good six months where I was working 18-20 hour days watching over detainees. I had to make sure they didn't riot."

He added, "You can't do that kind of thing just by pushing buttons."

Department of Defense spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen said the review will attempt to make sure the awards program is "structured to appropriately recognize the actions, service and sacrifice of our service members."

According to Christensen, one of the key questions during the evaluation process will be: "Does the military awards program provide equitable recognition for similar actions, service and sacrifice?"

The Defense Department created the "Distinguished Warfare Medal" last year, which recognized the actions of cyber warriors and "remote piloted aircraft" (RPA) operators. The award was promptly yanked by the Defense Department after it was criticized by members of Congress and veterans for ranking above the Purple Heart, an award reserved for those killed or injured in the line of battle. Critics panned the award as the "Armchair Medal" or the "Nintendo Medal."

But Shultz, the Air Force remote piloted aircraft manager, said the pilots of drones and other remote aircraft should receive some sort of recognition for their service.

"I was happy to see, as an RPA pilot that we finally had an avenue to articulate the past and present support RPAs have provided to the fight," Shultz said. "Nobody joins the military just to get ribbons or medals, but I am optimistic that we will...be able to quantify some of the impacts that we are making on the battlefield."

RPA pilots are eligible to receive the Arial Achievement Medal, the Legion of Merit, the Meritorious Service and the Achievement and Accommodation awards, according to military officials. Besides there being less available to recognize cyber warfare, some of these are extremely difficult to obtain and tend to be reserved for senior military officials.

"I know that RPAs have saved, 100 percent, coalition lines from enemy targets they couldn't see," Shultz said. "When I'm flying an RPA, I'm just as engaged and immersed as when I would fly a manned aircraft." He added that many RPA's tend to have the same weaponry as manned aircraft.

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