To get the newest military medal, you don't have to have been on the front lines. In fact, you could work very, very far from any combat.
The Distinguished Warfare Medal, announced by outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Wednesday, would recognize drone operators and those engaged in cyberattacks who haven't put themselves in harm's way.
"This award recognizes the reality of the kind of technological warfare that we're engaged in in the 21st century," Panetta said in a news conference.
Recipients might be operating a drone over Afghanistan from the United States or hacking into an enemy's computer system, NPR's Tom Bowman tells Rachel Martin, host of Weekend Edition Sunday.
"The thing to remember is that your actions could turn the tide of a battle or have a huge impact on a military operation. That's why you would get this medal," he says.
The Marine Corps Times reported Wednesday that the medal has extra weight because of its assigned rank among other awards:
"The new medal will rank just below the Distinguished Flying Cross. It will have precedence over — and be worn on the uniform above — the Bronze Star with Valor device, a medal awarded to troops for specific heroic acts performed under fire in combat."
Bowman spoke with Lamont Anderson in 2007, when the Air Force captain was training to operate a Predator drone. Anderson would leave his apartment in his flight suit and drive to Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, where he worked inside a bunker in front of a computer screen with a joystick.
"I'm so far removed," Anderson said. "Here we are at a remote location, far away from the battlefield. I can't really see — I can't physically put my eyes on it. I have a camera."
Listen to Bowman's full report on "commuter combat pilots" from 2007:
Drone sophistication has only increased since then, Bowman says, and they're doing different things, including dropping bombs and surveillance. They're also operating in the air, underwater and on land.
Panetta said only "extraordinary" acts would merit a Distinguished Warfare Medal. So what would count? Bowman says it's not totally clear-cut, but he does give some possible examples:
"You could imagine a bunch of soldiers in Afghanistan getting pinned down by a large Taliban force, here comes the drone keeping an eye one them, maybe dropping ... a bomb or two, taking out the Taliban and saving maybe dozens of American lives.
"Or it could be, you know, you're in a war with a particular country and you take down their air defense system ... by hacking into it, or you prevent generals from talking to the soldiers in the field and that could change the tide of a battle."
Bowman says eventually there will be more pilots for drones than ones who actually fly aircraft, so this medal will become particularly important to the Air Force. Here's a clip of his interview with Martin (we'll add the full interview once it's available Sunday):
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Before we left General Dempsey's office, we asked him about a new medal the Pentagon has created - the first new medal since World War II - and it's been established to recognize extraordinary achievement by troops who fight wars remotely - drone pilots and cyber-warriors.
GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: The Chiefs and I all felt like we needed something to recognize the changing character of war.
MARTIN: For more on the significance of this new medal, we're joined by NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman. So, Tom, first off, can you explain what this new medal recognizes and what it's comparable to?
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Rachel, it'll be awarded for what, as you say, is called extraordinary achievement in combat operations, but not for valor, and not for someone who's actually on the ground getting shot at. And this probably has some people scratching their heads. You know, we know in warfare, when someone charges a machine gun nest, for example, takes out the enemy, saves a buddy, heroic action, they would get a medal for that. They could earn a Silver Star, let's say. But in the case of this distinguished warfare medal, you're far from the battlefield. You could be operating a drone over Afghanistan or a computer. You could be hacking into an enemy's computer system or, you know, air defense system to take it down. But the thing to remember is that your actions could turn the tide of a battle or have a huge impact on a military operation. That's why you would get this medal.
MARTIN: So, there could be significant actions but it's still happening so far away from the actual...
MARTIN: ...frontlines. Tom, you and I have both visited these Air Force bases where drone pilots train and operate. You went to Creech Air Force Base, which is just outside Las Vegas. Can you describe what happens there, what it's like for these pilots?
BOWMAN: Well, you know, as you said, it's just outside Las Vegas. I was there five years ago, and these people commute to work. I basically followed an Air Force officer in his flight suit, leave his apartment, get in his car and drive to Creech Air Force Base. And they work inside this bunker. And there's a computer screen, they have a joystick, and they're actually flying a Predator drone.
MARTIN: So, they aren't just commuting to work, they're commuting to war.
BOWMAN: Exactly, yeah. So, he's flying this drone, and he was training at that time to operate a predator drone in the skies above either Afghanistan or Iraq. His name was Lamont Anderson. And he acknowledged at that time, listen, I'm not in harm's way.
CAPTAIN LAMONT ANDERSON: I'm so far removed, you know. Here we are at a remote location far away from battlefield. I can't really see. I can't physically put my eyes on it. I have a camera.
BOWMAN: You know, again, this was five years ago. And since then, drones have really increased in sophistication and numbers. They can drop bombs, what's called a Hellfire missile, a 100-pound missile, and we've seen that happen over the years in some CIA operations. But these would be military operations. But besides being able to drop a bomb, the big thing with these things is surveillance.
MARTIN: What does this mean culturally? I mean, for those in the military, how important do you think this will be?
BOWMAN: Well, I think, you know, you're increasing the number of drone pilots. In the coming years, there'll be more drone pilots than people actually flying aircraft. So, I think, for the Air Force in particular, it's very important. And if you look back over history, you know, Washington came up with the Purple Heart; Napoleon famously, and somewhat cynically, said a soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon. For this organization, for people in the military, you can walk up and immediately tell by looking at someone's uniform who they are. Did they serve in combat? Is this person a Green Beret? Did this person risk his or her life to save one of their comrades? I'm telling you, it's very, very important. They take these things very, very seriously.
MARTIN: NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, thanks so much.
BOWMAN: You're welcome, Rachel.
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