The Complex

Medals for Drone Pilots? Hagel Faces Tough Choice

Just before Leon Panetta left the Pentagon, the former Defense Secretary threw a political grenade into the building's E-Ring when he created a new award -- a "distinguished warfare medal" -- in recognition of the work drone operators do. But so far, no medals have been issued. Chuck Hagel, Panetta's successor, still hasn't announced a decision on he'd like to handle an issue that may seem silly to the civilian world -- but is beyond-radioactive within the military. 

As a former director of CIA and then Pentagon chief, Panetta felt it was time to show drone pilots and others in the community that the Defense Department values their work. In a military where medals and public recognition are the coin of the realm when it comes to promotions, many felt drone crews were unsung heroes.

"Our military reserves its highest decorations obviously for those who display gallantry and valor in actions where their lives are on the line, and we will continue to do so," Panetta said at what would be his last press briefing at the Pentagon in February 2013. "But we should also have the ability to honor the extraordinary actions that make a true difference in combat operations."

But the new medal caused an uproar. Ground troops felt disrespected because in the hierarchal world of military order, it sat two awards up from the Bronze Star medal in precedence -- and three above the Purple Heart. That was seen as a bit of a slight at infantrymen in the war zones, because the personal risks and valor they exhibited on the ground now appeared to be seen as less valuable than "joystick operators" working out of  places like Creech Air Force Base, down the highway from Las Vegas, Nev.

"The DWM must be demoted to its proper place in the order of military decorations, a move that is necessary to uphold the integrity of the awards process and ensure valor awards for courage and sacrifice in combat are not diminished in any way," wrote Rep. Duncan Hunter, Jr., a California Republican and former Marine officer who introduced legislation to prevent the medal as envisioned from going forward.

Enter Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, a former Army sergeant who fought on the ground in Vietnam and immediately saw the need to take a deep breath on this issue. A month or so after entering office, upon the advice of Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Pentagon's other service chiefs, Hagel killed the medal altogether. Instead, he said he would create a "distinguishing device" -- later known as the "Remote Impacts Device" -- that would be affixed on existing medals, in effect downgrading recognition for drone operators. But that's all that was said. Nearly 10 months later, key specifics about the recognition -- who should be eligible, what awards it can be affixed to, and how operators would rate it -- have yet to be announced. 

That's because Hagel is preparing to launch a broad review of how all troops are honored for their service as the long war in Afghanistan winds down and U.S. forces potentially find themselves in other hotspots. 

Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, told Foreign Policy that the review will "include service members entrusted with the responsibility to operate remote technology to directly impact combat as well as more traditional forms of arms." He said it would be finished later this year or in the early part of 2015.

Hagel, Kirby added, had a unique perspective on the issue of recognizing heroism.

"Having seen combat himself, Secretary Hagel fully understands and respects the traditions that come with awards and decorations," Kirby said. "This is a process that will take time and care, but he believes it's important it's done right."

Some believe Hagel, who has been consumed with far more important matters -- from the drawdown in Afghanistan to Egypt to the Pentagon budget to North Korea -- has back-burnered the issue in the hope that it will just sort of disappear on its own.

Others think Hagel could have used the opportunity to send an important signal to ground forces at a time when the wars are coming to a close, the benefits of service members are under scrutiny after more than a decade of war, and the services, particularly the Army, are beginning to shrink by tens of thousands of troops.

"There was a tremendous rift in the force when the Distinguished Warfare Medal was introduced," said Joe Davis, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "We're pleased that Secretary Hagel chose to eliminate the medal and to use the existing medal structure to appropriately award those who have a tremendous impact on the battlefield from afar."

Doug Birkey, director of government relations for the Air Force Association in Washington, said it's tough to try to balance the value of "strategic effect" with "personal sacrifice."

"An RPA [Remotely Piloted Aircraft] operator could net an incredibly important strategic goal, but not be in direct personal danger due to the attributes afforded by remote operations," Birkey said. "This is a new paradigm that diverges from the traditional model of attaining objectives via putting one's self in harm's way."

But he paraphrased Gen. George Patton's famous quote that "it's not your job to die for your country, it's your job to make the enemy die for his." Then he added: "Given the rapid emergence of cyber and RPA ops -- both of which change what it means to project combat power -- I personally think it is important to consider rewarding skill and innovative thinking that nets strategic goals for the nation."

It's unclear if, or how, Hagel will decide to honor drone operators and crews for their wartime service. But after more than a decade of two bloody and expensive ground wars, the future of warfare will have more drone operators in it than boots on the ground, and that's a reality that he may find it hard to ignore.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

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