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The Pentagon’s Newest Medal Rewards Excellence in Drone Combat

Called the Distinguished Warfare Medal, this award will honor drone pilots, hackers and others

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A new combat medal will be awarded for drone operators and others who conduct war from a distance. Photo: Anguskirk

To be awarded for valor in remote combat operations, says the Associated Press, the “Distinguished Warfare Medal” is a new badge of honor offered up by the U.S. military for those who commit war from afar: think drone pilots and hackers.

The new blue, red and white-ribboned Distinguished Warfare Medal will be awarded to individuals for ‘‘extraordinary achievement’’ related to a military operation that occurred after Sept. 11, 2001. But unlike other combat medals, it does not require the recipient risk his or her life to get it.

The response by various outlets has been biting, questioning the idea of a combat medal for people who don’t directly step into harm’s way. The AP:

While some acknowledged the contributions of cyber and drone warriors and said the award was the right thing to do, others dubbed the medal the ‘‘Geek Cross’’ and speculated that young video-gamers may soon get Purple Hearts for their animated wounds.

For the Atlantic Wire, Dashiell Bennett says that the award is meant to acknowledge the changing face of war, with the Pentagon being “eager to find some way to recognize the achievements of those who are fighting modern battles, but just happen to be doing so from a computer lab or flight simulator instead of the war zone.” That, and not stepping on the toes of established awards.

““eal pilots”,” says Bennett, “will still insist that they not share the same medal with drone operators.”

As one Air Force colonel told Politico last year, “The basic fact of the matter is no one is shooting back at you. That makes a big difference. Combat pilots respect drone pilots, but I think we’d be uneasy about it if they were to get the same award.”

The award, says Marine Corps Times, “will be awarded for specific acts, such as the successful targeting of a particular individual at a critical time.”

Though obviously not the same as for those fighting on the front lines, NPR says that the stresses of combat-behind-a-console remain high.

The particular nature of drone warfare is also a contributor to the higher stress levels. While the number is very small, officials who conducted the study said they did encounter a handful of pilots who suffered symptoms of PTSD — post-traumatic stress disorder — directly linked to their experience running combat operations. Unlike traditional pilots flying manned aircraft in a war zone, the pilots operating remote drones often stare at the same piece of ground in Afghanistan or Iraq for days, sometimes months. They watch someone’s pattern of life, see people with their families, and then they can be ordered to shoot.

According to Marine Corps Times, the new Distinguished Warfare Medal is also raising eyebrows for the decision by the Pentagon to “plac it above some traditional combat valor medals in the military’s “order of precedence.”

The new medal will rank just below the Distinguished Flying Cross. It will have precedence over — and be worn on a uniform above — the Bronze Star with Valor device, a medal awarded to troops for specific heroic acts performed under fire in combat.

More from Smithsonian.com:

‘Dronestagram’ Shares Photos of Drone-Strike Targets Online
This Drone Can Fit In Your Palm
Imagining a Drone-Proof City in the Age of Surveillance

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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