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A big debate is brewing over a new medal being awarded to drone pilots. (AP image)

New medal for drone pilots angers some military members

The United States military has been flying drones since Hank Snyder served in the Vietnam War.

"If you can picture a control box, you launch your drone, and you have to operate that drone like a radio controlled airplane. You take it to the site you want to take it, you take your pictures, and bring it back home," Hank says.

Hank was stationed in the jungles of Burma as a teenager, flying SD-1 unmanned aerial vehicles equipped with still cameras and radar beacons.

The drone had a top range of 100 miles, and Hank and his fellow pilots were stationed on the front lines. He received a Purple Heart after being injured by a land mine.

I asked Hank how close to combat he and his fellow pilots were stationed. "Right in front. According to my rifle, pretty close," he laughed.

Hank said they weren't always successful working on the cutting edge of 1960s technology.

"We had a jet drone when I got to Germany. They had a card where you punched numbers in and put in your drone. It took off, and went about 200 feet, and blew up."

Today, UAVs look more like spacecraft than the radio-controlled model airplanes Hank pioneered.

Sleek, silent, and deadly, they are often piloted from bases thousands of miles away from the battlefront.

The increasing importance of high-tech war machines has prompted the Pentagon to announce a new honor just for drone pilots and cyber warfare experts who impact a combat operation but do not necessarily put themselves at risk.

The Distinguished Warfare Medal is the first combat-related award to be created since the Bronze Star in 1944. It will rank between a Bronze star and a Silver star in precedence. It is also slated to rank above the Purple Heart.

But not everyone is happy about it.

"[It's] probably a totally unnecessary award. We do have a series of medals that are already available for any range of actions," said Doug Sterner, Curator of the Military Times Hall of Valor.

Sterner is also the recipient of 2 Bronze Stars.

"Back in my day, we used to say if you had 50-cents and a Bronze Star you could get a cup of coffee in most restaurants," he joked.

Sterner argued there are already awards in place for non-combat contributions like drone piloting.

For example, "When the nature of warfare changed in the 1940s and we went atomic, such contributions were recognized with the Legion of Merit. Test pilots in the 1950s got Distinguished Flying Crosses," said Sterner.

Online backlash against The Distinguished Warfare Medal is growing.

Some veterans are upset that pilots whose combat experience comes via computer screen will be honored in the same way as men and women putting their lives on the line.

But drone pilots see it differently.

"I'm living the same fight as those guys, or at least I'm seeing the same fight," Lieutenant Colonel Chris Gough told 60 Minutes in 2009.

"There are arguments that we aren't as engaged in the war. I've heard those arguments. And I can tell you that I've never been more engaged in a conflict in my life. Physiologically, the stimulus and response, exactly the same."

A petition on WhiteHouse.gov asking President Obama to demote the medal had over 13-thousand signatures by Friday afternoon.

For the White House to consider taking action, 100,000 signatures will be needed by mid-March.

But Doug Sterner is not optimistic. "The outcry and the outrage is probably doomed to failure, because the Pentagon has repeatedly demonstrated that they are an immovable object," he predicted.

During our interviews, both Hank and Doug downplayed the honors they had received for their service.

But stripes, stars, and hardware are not just about the veterans themselves.

"They are a legacy that is a part of family history. When your kids, grandkids, or great grandkids decades later say, ‘what did dad or what did mom do in Iraq or Afghanistan?' They are able to find the record of the awards they received for their distinguished service," explained Sterner.

Hank's son, Steve Hearon, agrees.

"As a family member, I think it's a wonderful thing to acknowledge his service and what he did. And he certainly put himself at risk to earn any of his medals.

"I'm really proud of him."

Libby Denkmann, Ron & Don Show Producer
Libby Denkmann is producer of KIRO Radio's The Ron & Don Show (weekdays 3-7). Libby is always on the run - literally.
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