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Trigger Pullers and Mouse Clickers

Do drone pilots deserve medals?

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It’s not a new debate. For generations, members of the military have compared their service to those of their peers, or had that comparison made for them. Did you serve in the elephant grass of Vietnam, or turn a wrench from a base in Thailand? Was your service as hoo-ah as mine? Either way, we both packed our bags, left our families, and went to war.

The nation formally honors soldiers, sailors, coast guardsmen, airmen, and marines by giving them medals, and we recognize a career of military service with retirement pay and medical benefits. Two recent news stories have opened both practices to question. Do drone pilots — who often control Predators from the United States — deserve their own medal? And should the SEAL who killed Osama bin Laden, but left the service before his 20 years were up, get a monthly pension check?

A recent decision by the Department of Defense created the Distinguished Warfare Medal to recognize drone pilots who pull the trigger without deploying to the front lines. The New York Times quoted former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta: “I’ve seen firsthand how modern tools like remotely piloted platforms and cybersystems have changed the way wars are fought…and they’ve given our men and women the ability to engage the enemy and change the course of battle even from afar.” As you might expect, that provoked some heated discussion from GIs in the blogosphere and in print, and the new medal is already up for formal review.

I served in Afghanistan, but as a support squadron commander at what was arguably the safest place in the country: Bagram Air Field, near Kabul. Still, we had rocket attacks (I brought a piece of shrapnel home in my bag from one), and once a direct-fire assault sent us running for cover. Even as a dedicated REMF (Rear Echelon Bleepedy Bleep), my deployment was a life-altering experience. At any hour of the day or night, we were on hand to honor the remains of those who had fallen. At 0200, you would don your uniform, grab your weapon, line the road leading to the C-17, and salute the transfer case that passed before you. While I was there, I saluted 55 cases. On one occasion I remember lending a firm grasp to the shoulder of one of my young Airmen whose face was wet with tears. Truth was, if I hadn’t been expected to hold it together as the squadron commander, I would have been just as visibly affected.

Secretly, I was ashamed that I wasn’t in as much danger as those whose bodies passed before me on all those windy and dust-choked nights. Most of them were barely out of their teens; some had taken their own lives. I was old enough to be their father – and still alive. After I left, insurgents dropped a rocket on the procession one evening, killing two sleepy soldiers who were simply paying their respects to fallen comrades.

If you’re a GI, whenever you meet a fellow serviceman or woman in dress uniform, your eyes fall on the ribbons. Those tightly packed bits of fabric tell the story of  their service to the country. Been to Afghanistan? Or Iraq? There’s a campaign medal — and corresponding ribbon — for that. As a non-flying Air Force officer, you can probably expect to receive the Meritorious Service Medal as a major or lieutenant colonel for a successful squadron command tour in a combat zone. Some above me in the chain of command received Bronze Stars for their time in the desert, which, in its most basic form, is given for achievement in a forward area. A Bronze Star with valor — a “V” — is reserved for direct contact with the enemy. But a Bronze Star is a Bronze Star, whether or not the “V” is attached. The rub, to some, is that the new Distinguished Warfare Medal, which can be earned from the United States, will be worn above the Bronze Star in the carefully prescribed ranking of military decorations. But according to the defense department, it will only be awarded for truly exceptional actions, such as a drone strike on a suspected terrorist. And, it won’t be given for valor — situations that involve risk of life to the recipient.

So why the uproar? When I said goodbye to my family before my tour in Afghanistan, I remember my son sobbing in the driveway as I left. Yet there were thousands of troops who were in far, far greater danger than I. Truth is, unless you’re the one who double-tapped Osama bin Laden, there are always some people closer to the “tip of the spear” and others farther away, even in a war zone. There was virtually no chance I wasn’t going to return to my family. I spent a great deal of my time with Afghan contractors, figuring out how to house 1500 Airmen — mostly in plywood shacks, and I mostly fought boring base administrivia. Not exactly Iwo Jima stuff. If I stand next to an Army Specialist who survived multiple IED attacks, our Afghanistan Campaign Medals are exactly the same. Should his be different to show the greater danger he was in?  There are probably many who would say yes.

Similarly, the first guy or gal who gets a Stateside-earned Distinguished Warfare Medal — but who got to go home every night to kiss his or her spouse — will get the GIs talking. The controversy about the DWM is that it expands the traditional definition of what it means to engage the enemy.

Beside awarding medals and ribbons for specific actions, we recognize military service by ensuring a lifetime of retirement pay and medical benefits (starting at age 60 for a reservist) for those with 20 years of active or reserve duty. That’s whether you were a cook, fighter pilot, platoon sergeant, submarine captain, or chaplain. But what about those who leave the service short of 20 years, and therefore receive no retirement, even if they’ve been to Iraq a dozen times? What do we owe them?

That’s the central issue of the Esquire cover story about “The Shooter” who killed Osama Bin Laden. The magazine, one of my favorites, normally features an “it” girl or guy on the cover. The March newsstand issue is swathed in black, with stark white letters screaming that the SEAL trigger man is being screwed by the U.S. government. The Shooter served 14 years of active duty: so, no retirement. Was there a reason he left early? I read and re-read the story, hoping to find out why. The cover blurb and editor’s preface — which, as my editor pointed out, are designed to sell magazines — decry the injustice done to that hero. And he is a hero in my eyes. I wouldn’t last a day in SEAL training, much less be able to do what he did. But consider this: Most of the soldiers who took fire on Utah, Juno, and Omaha beaches during the Normandy invasion had been civilians five years earlier. And many of them didn’t get active retirements either.

There are all manner of troops who don’t make it a career. Some move on, like the Marine Corps staff sergeant who does multiple tours in Afghanistan or Iraq, then gets a degree and a good job in the private sector. There are countless others whose experiences facing roadside bombs or sniper fire were simply waypoints in their life journey. They’re heroes. They deal with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other ailments, and carry on. Aside from some Veterans Administration benefits, they get no retirement. Every person in the military signs up under the same rule: Twenty years is twenty years. And, today we must recognize that a Stateside pilot or sensor operator can take out a suspected terrorist or bomb-setter. And, whether a kill is made from the cockpit of an A-10 or while piloting a drone from Nevada, the bad guy on the ground is just as dead.

In today’s warfare, it’s more difficult than ever to parse a serviceman’s records and call one deserving and the other not. The Shooter relied on thousands who made that kill possible — most likely even drone pilots or cyber specialists. If the rules need to change for medals and retirement, let’s do it with an eye toward the modern nature of warfare, and not just because we’re valuing one soldier’s, or one group of soldiers’, experience over any other.

About John Sotham
John Sotham

A former associate editor of Air & Space, John Sotham is a hopelessly nearsighted frequent flyer, with thousands of hours logged in exit rows worldwide. He is a U.S. Air Force Reserve colonel and a former crew chief on the F-4D Phantom II and A-10A “Warthog.” He started collecting aviation books when he was eight years old. Any opinions expressed are solely the author’s.

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