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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