The Pentagon authorized a new medal for veterans of its drone wars this month and drew back the curtain on a secretive program to help Turkey with surveillance of Kurdish militants in the process.
A news release on the Air Force's new Combat Effects Medal for drone crews said among those eligible for the honor are participants in Operation Nomad Shadow, something the military has rarely acknowledged to the public. A few media reports have tied Nomad Shadow to an operation that provided drone intelligence over northern Iraq and eastern Turkey to the Turkish government, allowing the allied power to monitor movements of militant Kurds.
Nomad Shadow, which began Nov. 5, 2007, coincided with a U.S. move to target the newly named Islamic State terrorist group, which was operating from Baghdad into northern and western Iraq. It also came after the Turkish parliament authorized military strikes on Kurdish Workers Party encampments in northern Iraq.
The Bush administration officially opposed Turkey's move but was caught between allies.
Turkey is a NATO member, and while it didn't join the U.S. invasion of Iraq, it offered its roads as a pipeline to supply American troops. From Turkish yogurt to Coca-Cola bottled in Ankara, U.S. troops in Mosul and Irbil relied on Turkish goods.
At the same time, U.S. troops leaned heavily on Kurdish forces, who proved to be America's most reliable local friends in Iraq and later Syria.
The Nomad Shadow troops, many of whom worked out of Ankara, kept Turkey happy by delivering reconnaissance imagery and intelligence data. The Pentagon, meanwhile, kept the Kurds happy by staying quiet about Nomad Shadow.
And it stayed quiet. Even a Washington Post story in 2013, which relied on anonymous sources to confirm the operation's existence, said the operation had existed since 2011 — a full four years after it started.
The Combat Effects Medal, though, let the cat out of the sack.
The "Remote Combat Effects Campaign Medal was approved by the Secretary of the Air Force to recognize U.S. Air Force military members in a non-deployed status who directly participated in a Department of Defense combat operation from a remote location," the Air Force said in a news release.
The service has struggled for years to care for its drone troops and recognize their valor. Many drone drivers have said they are basically second class in a service that idolizes those who pilot fighters and bombers.
And drone work is tough, filled with long days that can involve piloting several aircraft. Worse, they say, there's not the deployed camaraderie for drone troops, who hit Islamic State targets with drone-fired missiles and then have to head out to pick up the kids at soccer practice.
The majority of combat drone missions have been flown from Creech Air Force Base outside Las Vegas. The Air Force will undoubtedly have to add more drone flying sites in the years ahead.
The F-35s now coming off production lines could be the Air Force's last manned fighters as computer systems advance and unmanned technology takes over from pilots in the cockpit.
There's good reason to go unmanned. Downed drones don't require a bugler and firing squad to comfort a grieving family. They're also cheaper and arguably more capable of high G-force maneuvers that would kill a human pilot.
So far, drones, though, have operated in a secretive world.
When I saw a drone land and taxi in Balad, Iraq, in 2008, I was laughingly told by a sergeant, "You didn't just see that." Not much has changed.
Few of the missions are acknowledged, and a big part of the drone world remains in the hands of the CIA.
But behind every drone strike that kills a senior terrorist or tells troops and enemy's location, there's a pilot.
And they now have a medal.