Two Marines became the Corps’ first unmanned aircraft operators to receive the “R” device for supporting combat operations in the Philippines, Corps officials said.

Sgt. Joseph Latsch and Sgt. Ethan Mintus were awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal with Remote Impact Device on Dec. 11, Marine Corps officials said.

The two Marines were in the Philippines flying RQ7B-V2 Shadow aircraft in support of combat missions carried out by a joint task force, according to the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing.

Details of their missions were not immediately available. In October, the Philippine military defeated Islamic State militants after a bitter five-month battle.

“The commander gave us a mission which helped support our allies to engage the enemy with indirect fire assets,” Latsch said in an official Marine Corps news story. “We were trying to track enemy targets in order to allow allied aircraft to attack targets with more accuracy. During the time I spent in country, the detachment I was part of played a critical role in supporting our allies on the ground during combat operations.”

Both men belong to Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 3, based out of Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. They operated from a “spoke” launch and recovery area that extends their unmanned aircraft’s range to up to 100 miles.

“Within 48 hours of touching down on the Spoke site we were in support of the joint task force commander from the friendly foreign military forces of the host country,” Mintus said in the news story.

Mintus said that one mission stood out during his deployment. While tracking a high value target and directing fires, Mintus’ unmanned aircraft ran low on fuel and had to return to base.

To keep supporting the operation, Mintus prepared another aircraft to launch before the drone he was flying had to leave, said his squadron commander Lt. Col. Kenneth Phelps.

“I think it’s fairly significant these two gentlemen are representative of some of the creative Marines we have in the VMU [unmanned aerial vehicle squadron] community,” Phelps said in the news story. “I’m extremely proud of everything they’ve done and achieved.”

The “R” device is meant to recognize service members who play a major role during a battle but are not eligible for combat valor awards or devices because they were not physically present at the fighting. It cannot be worn with the Bronze Star, Distinguished Flying Cross or Air Medal.

Activities that merit the device include piloting unmanned aircraft and providing vital intelligence in support of combat or rescue operations, taking part in unmanned aircraft strikes and shooting down an enemy aircraft that is trying to attack friendly forces.

“This award demonstrates the impact of using a UAS [unmanned aerial systems] during combat operations from a remote location,” Phelps said. “This is very important to the VMUs and individuals that fly unmanned aircraft because we’re often supporting missions from afar while still having a significant impact on those operations.”

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