Pentagon Debuts 'R' Award Device for Drone Warfare to Mixed Reviews

An MQ-9 Reaper returns from a mission on Dec. 1, 2010, at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan. (Air Force/Chad Chisholm)
An MQ-9 Reaper returns from a mission on Dec. 1, 2010, at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan. (Air Force/Chad Chisholm)

The US Defense Department this week announced the successor to the much-maligned Distinguished Warfare Medal recognizing the contributions of military drone operators and cyber warriors: an "R" device that can be affixed to other awards.

The DWM, known as the "Drone Medal" and derided as the "Nintendo Medal," was cancelled in 2013, shortly after it was introduced, by then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who called its creation unnecessary.

Pentagon officials confirmed this week that the quarter-inch bronze "R," for "remote," would recognize direct contributions to specific combat events by those not physically in the battle.

"It will be awarded for what [the DWM] was intended for," an official told Military.com, speaking under condition of anonymity ahead of a formal announcement about the awards changes.

Officials noted that the "R" device could also recognize the contributions of cyber specialists and for other fields not yet fully explored.

While the short-lived "Drone Medal" drew immediate ire from troops who complained about its being positioned above the Bronze Star and Purple Heart in terms of precedence, the "R" device has been much more quietly received.

"I think it's a good step," said Carl Forsling, a former Marine MV-22 Osprey and CH-46E "Phrog" pilot who retired as a major earlier this year. "I think it's better that you give an award that's at the appropriate level, designate that this was not for staff work -- it was an operation with a remote vehicle."

Such a device, Forsling said, would make it easier to recognize the contributions of the small but growing remotely piloted vehicle operator community.

"People in the military read ribbon stacks like a book," he said.

But for Joshua Blanco, a former Army unmanned aerial vehicle operator, the "R" device doesn't go far enough.

"An army is not just ground troops getting shot at, but many pieces of the puzzle that get the job done," said Blanco, who said he operated RQ-1B Predator and MQ-1C Gray Eagle drones and left the service as a sergeant. "We save lives. I believe a medal is not asking too much."

Blanco said the Drone Warfare Medal would have been an important step to recognizing "a growing new age of warfare, where a good percentage of troops without being on the battlefield."

He also noted that Army UAV operators deploy and the notion that they operate aircraft from an easy chair somewhere is a misconception.

"[We] might not be there with those troops in a small town somewhere getting shot at, but our eyes are overhead looking for the enemy where our friends are not able to see them," he said.

A former Air Force MQ-1 Predator pilot who retired in 2006, agreed.

"I think awards are important," the retired UAV pilot, who asked to be kept anonymous, said. "In the drone business, they are under a lot of stress. There's lives at stake and it's a complicated mission. I think they should have awards."

Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@monster.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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