How should the Pentagon acknowledge a warrior whose battlefield is an immobile cockpit in Nevada? For years, the United States Air Force has struggled with twin problems regarding the pilots of its remotely piloted aircraft: how to honor extraordinary actions by drone pilots without diminishing the risks and achievements of combat pilots, and how to retain drone pilots, who see the move as high-stress and a career dead end. The Pentagon seems to be making good on its promise, first considered years ago, of creating an award for warriors fighting far from the battlefield.
This isn’t the first time the Obama administration has attempted to add a medal for drone warriors. Early in 2013, the administration considered making drone pilots, as well as troops tasked with cyber warfare, eligible for the Distinguished Warfare Medal. The award sits fourth-highest, after the Medal of Honor, a service-specific cross, and the silver star. The Air Force description of the medal notes it is “awarded to members of the United States Air Force who distinguished themselves by exceptionally meritorious service to the government in a duty of great responsibility, in combat or otherwise.” Groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars attacked the suggestion as awarding a combat medal to people not physically in combat (even if they might suffer mentally as though they were physically present), and so the Secretary of Defense withdrew the proposed change.
According to Military Times, “The Pentagon has firmly rejected the idea of giving drone pilots and cyber warriors their own medal, and instead will offer a new "R" device to pin on existing noncombat medals.” That should help with recognition, while not alienating veteran’s groups. It might also help a little with drone pilot retention, a major Air Force problem going back years.
The new pin may be good for morale, but it’s hardly the only way the Air Force plans to keep pilots. A recent change opened up piloting Global Hawk drones to enlisted servicemembers, not just officers, and paired it with a bonus as high as $125,000 for drone pilots that sign up for another five years.