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2 Marines honored for use of drones in combat

VMU-3 Commanding Officer Lt. Col. Kenneth Phelps, left, commended Sgts. Ethan Mintus, right, and Joseph Latsch during a ceremony at the Marine Corps Air Station at Kaneohe Bay on Dec. 11. The two UAS operators were awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal for work with the “remote impact” “R” device in combat zone operations. (Marine Corps)

Two Marines with Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 3 at Kaneohe Bay received a first-of-its-kind recognition for the use of drones in a combat zone.

Sgts. Joseph Latsch and Ethan Mintus earlier this month became the first unmanned aerial system operators in the Marines to receive Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals with the new “remote impact” “R” device for providing support during combat operations overseas, the Corps said.

The III Marine Expeditionary Force in Okinawa, Japan, said the location of the combat operations could not be released “due to operational security reasons.” However, the command did say a detachment from the Hawaii squadron, known as VMU-3, is deployed to the Philippines. The unit has operated in support of Special Operations Command Pacific in the Philippines.

For five months beginning in May, Philippine armed forces battled hundreds of Islamic State-aligned forces in Marawi on the southern island of Mindinao, where attempts are being made to set up an Islamic State caliphate. Since the outset of the fighting, U.S. special operations forces had been assisting the Philippine government with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets.

The Kaneohe squadron has 12 RQ-7B Shadows with 20-foot wingspans that can laser-designate a target and provide intelligence to ground troops via electro-optical and infrared sensors.

Mintus, from Vienna, Ohio, said in a Marine Corps-produced news story that “we had a couple of weeks of planning on a high-value individual in the area. We were using our aircraft as an indirect fires spotting asset.”

Indirect fire refers to arms that don’t have a direct line of sight to the target and are often associated with artillery and mortars.

Latsch, from Allentown, Pa., said VMU-3 provided observation for allied forces during the operation.

“The commander gave us a mission which helped support our allies to engage the enemy with indirect fire assets,” Latsch said in the Marine Corps 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.”

In late August the Navy said it was implementing changes to the letter-type devices worn on certain medals and ribbons in line with a wider Defense Department requirement.

The devices include “V” for valor, “C” for meritorious achievement or service under combat conditions, and “R” for actions from a remote location. A Navy message at the time said the one-quarter-inch bronze “R” device can be authorized on certain personal decorations “to denote the medal was awarded for the direct hands-on employment of a weapon system, or for other warfighting activities that had a direct and immediate impact on a combat operation.”

The “R” device indicates circumstances that do not expose an individual to hostile action. Lt. Col. Kenneth Phelps, the commander of VMU-3, said Latsch and Mintus made history within the unmanned aerial system community and the Corps.

“This award demonstrates the impact of using a UAS during combat operations from a remote location,” Phelps said in the Marine Corps story.

Nearly 1,000 Islamic State-linked fighters, including those with the Abu Sayyaf and Maute groups, were killed in the southern Philippines between May and October in Muslim-dominated Marawi in Mindanao. Ground and air forces pounded the city before it was retaken.

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© 2017 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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