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Mr. Casey approved the idea. One year and $8 million later, Mr. Wise and his team developed five prototype UAVs. Mr. Clarridge proudly pointed out that the project, opposed at the time by many in the U.S. military, came in under budget.

Others attending the ceremony included Charles E. Allen, who just retired from the CIA and served as an undersecretary for intelligence and analysis at the Department of Homeland Security.

“There are old colleagues and friends, and this is a chance to honor people who have done magical, innovative things to protect the country. Their successes are unheralded, but they are heroes,” Mr. Allen said.

As the ceremonies were wrapping up, Mr. North took the microphone and began reading highlights from Mr. Clarridge’s career. It began to dawn on Mr. Clarridge that he would be getting the last award of the ceremony. “Oh …” he said from the back of the room as Mr. North began to describe a career that took Mr. Clarridge from Nepal to Latin America.

The citation on the medal given to him reads: “In recognition of his long and intrepid service, his bold and gallant leadership and his steadfast devotion to protecting the God-given rights of free people.”