“We have just won a war with a lot of heroes flying around in planes. The next war may be fought by airplanes with no men in them at all. . . . Take everything you’ve learned about aviation in war, throw it out the window, and let’s go to work on tomorrow’s aviation”
—Gen Henry “Hap” Arnold, US Army Air Forces, 1945
The Pentagon is now considering the creation of a new medal that would be given to pilots of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) who often work on military bases far removed from the battlefield. The proposed Distinguished Warfare Medal, which would be given for exceptional conduct outside a combat zone, would rank between the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Soldier’s Medal. Both are medals for valor.
There is no question that UAVs, more commonly known as drones, have completely changed warfare as we have previously known it to be. Instead of flying their planes over the battlefield, pilots are now safely located in an air-conditioned trailer somewhere far removed from the battlefield, remotely guiding these unique airships to do what used to be done on-site: conduct surveillance of enemy activities, gather intelligence, back-up ground troops when they battle the enemy, and to participate in covert actions by launching missiles against terrorists on the ground. Indeed, drones have been supporting the “Global War on Terror” since 2004 in Pakistan and as well in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
It does appear that drones and their pilots are now two of the modern advances in aviation that Gen Henry “Hap” Arnold predicted in 1945.
However, this news still does not sit well with veterans. Despite the exceptional article justifying such an award written by a combat pilot who is presently a drone pilot, other veterans see a difference: combat pilots are in danger of being shot down with their plane, whereas a drone can be eliminated while its pilot is located safely elsewhere.
As one Austin resident who was an Army awards clerk (Spec 5, combat engineer) in Vietnam commented, “I think it is demeaning to those pilots who have previously been in combat. I have recommended Air Medals with Valor for chopper pilots and know for a fact that they risked their lives while supporting our missions. Drone pilots will never meet that degree of danger.” A flight engineer in Vietnam (Air Force, Staff Sergeant), now living in Florida, concurred by saying, “Drone pilots do a great job, but there is a difference between combat and sitting home doing your work.”
Former pilots have also weighed in. A helicopter pilot (Col, U.S. Army, retired) who flew with an Air Cavalry unit in Vietnam said, “I don’t mind that they want to recognize the outstanding performance of drone operators [pilots], but please don’t call it “bravery”. But they don’t get shot at. And, when the drone goes down, for whatever reason, they don’t get hurt.”
And a Georgetown, Texas Air Force pilot (Col, retired), who flew out of Thailand during the Vietnam War, retorted, “Glad I served when I did. This is not the Air Force I was in. Might as well give the medal to the drone. At least ‘it’ was in the combat zone.”
At this point in time, all we have is a proposal for such a medal. Although the Pentagon has not formally endorsed the medal, Charles Mugno, the head of the Army Institute of Heraldry has indicated that six alternate designs have been completed and are presently awaiting approval. A final decision is pending.