Medal ceremony photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force, glitch artwork courtesy of Lnk.Si, both via Flickr. Drone footage courtesy of The Aviationist.

Killing From Afar: The Growing Debate Over Rewards For Drone Pilots

Do drone pilots deserve medals for combat actions performed thousands of miles away in the safety of a bunker?

That’s the center of a quiet debate in the defense community. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, as one of his last decisions, announced that he had created a “Distinguished Warfare Medal” (DWM) in recognition of drone pilot efforts.

The announcement was controversial – especially since it was two ranks up from the Bronze Star, and three from the Purple Heart on the military’s award hierarchy, according to Foreign Policy (FP).

Only a few months later, however, the new defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, axed the medal, replacing it with a “distinguishing device” that would attach to existing medals.

Specific details on how this device would be awarded have yet to emerge, partially because Hagel has also set in motion a larger review of all medals and recognitions that’s due to be finished at the end of 2014 or the beginning of 2015, FP reports.

“… some corner of a foreign field”

So far, none of the U.S. Air Force’s 1,300 drone pilots have received medals for operating unmanned aerial vehicles.

But it’s not that they don’t deserve medals, the Veterans’ Association and other related organizations said in a letter disputing the DWM, according to military.com

The most important thing for the associations is that the medal, as originally conceived, would have ranked above medals honoring accomplishments and sacrifice in physical combat.

Not only is that a slight to the soldiers risking their lives in the field, but it would also leave ground troops at a disadvantage when it comes to promotions, where medals are a key factor, according to FP.

Of course, some also argue that it’s video game warfare, prone to civilian casualties, undeserving of awards.

Black bunkers in Nevada

Piloting a joystick-operated drone, video game-style, from thousands of miles away with no personal risk, may sound like one of the better jobs the military has to offer.

But it’s often grueling work, according to several former drone operators who have spoken out about their profession.

Their time is spent in dark bunkers in places like Nevada, New Mexico, and Syracuse, staring at a pixelated war-zone video stream up to 12-13 hours continuously, six days a week.

They sometimes stalk their subjects for days or weeks at a time, watching their intimate moments with family and loved ones along with their potentially threatening activities.

Worst is the violence, however. In his interview with GQ, former drone operator Brandon Bryant recalls how the Hellfire missiles he launched literally blew people apart; how he watched them bleed out and turn cold on his infrared camera.

For years, the effect of war on the highly distanced drone pilots received little attention. But a 2011 Air Force (USAF) mental-health survey of 600 drone operators showed that 42% experienced moderate to high stress, and 20% reported emotional exhaustion.

Another study showed that drone operators suffered the same rates of depression, PTSD, alcohol abuse and suicidal tendencies as regular combat air crews, according to GQ.

Drone wars: a growth sector?

Even as the major U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are winding down, however, the issue of drone operators’ status in the military will likely be ongoing.

The Air Force is currently training more operators than fighter and bomber pilots combined, the New York Times reports, and seeks to increase the amount of operators from 1,300 today to more than 2,000 by 2015.

As of Dec. 2013, USAF has a little more than 14,000 regular pilots.

There could be a hurdle for the U.S. drive for a remotely-operated aircraft fleet, however, according to the Brookings Institute: the Air Force just can’t find enough drone pilot volunteers.

Ole Skaar