Pentagon to Consider Whether Drone Pilots Deserve Top Military Honors

The Pentagon is set to review military medal award process for drone pilots.

April 28, 2014, 1:53 PM
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.
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.
TSgt Ricky Best/Defense Department/AP Photo

April 28, 2014— -- 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 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.

Shultz acknowledged drone pilots simply do not face the same risk of a pilot in the sky. However, he said remote pilots should still be eligible for some kind of recognition.

"With all due respect to our veterans, the way we fight wars is changing," Shultz said. "We fight from a remote location and we don't face those same threats...but there may be a time where we are the only asset available that makes the difference between life and death for troops on the ground."

Spooner, who also worked as a Navy Sonar Technician before his work on the ground, agreed that the technology is becoming a huge and necessary aspect of the military.

"I can remember, just in my six-and-a-half years of service, all the things that changed," Spooner said. "I'm only 31 years old and they use things like drones now that weren't really around during my time."

While acknowledging the importance and hard work of the American military's cyber warriors, Spooner said veterans would not appreciate, just as they didn't with the "Distinguished Warfare Medal," awards for remote warfare outranking valor medals like the Bronze Star or Purple Heart.

"I think they should be recognized for their skill, and when I think of (drone pilots) I automatically think of skill," he said. "But when I think of valor, I think of bravery and actually being there, and you weren't actually there."

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