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Drone pilots: Why war is also hard for remote soldiers

Drone pilots are far from the battlefield, but they show some of the same signs of stress as do soldiers fighting on the ground. Now a movement in the military is afoot to assist these techno-warriors.

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In short, base life is, like the civilian world, built around an 8-to-5 schedule. "The family support center closes, the clinic closes. Everything closes at 5 o'clock, so there's nobody left for those guys who are working the other 16 hours of that day," Ortega says. "And so their access to a lot of that kind of extra supportive care is just not there."

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This can cause friction in "maintaining relationships with their families – these were the kinds of things that they reported that were stressful for them," he adds.

One potential answer is to rethink the work shifts that leave UAV pilots feeling isolated and out of sync with daily life. This might involve, for example, ending overnight shifts. The Pentagon could position its pilots at bases around the globe, allowing it to maintain 24-hour rotations while enabling pilots to work 8-to-5 shifts in their own time zones.

During times of a surge, overnight shifts might be unavoidable, officials concede. But "if I can send the work anywhere in the world, why would I send it to where it's 3 in the morning?" Ortega says. "You sent it all the way from the AOR [area of operations] all the way to California. Why not send it to Ramstein [Germany]? Why not send it to Guam or send it somewhere else where it's daylight, and then guys just work day shift?"

"Humans don't work well at 3 in the morning," he adds.

But military culture can work against change, he says. And in the meantime, pilots are trying to bridge two worlds.

"Besides doing the work at night, [they] try to still do the family side then during the day, because family wouldn't understand if you're sleeping during the day," says Peter Singer, director of the 21st Century Initiative at the Brookings Institution in Washington and author of "Wired for War."

That builds fatigue, which decreases performance, which leads to more stress, researchers say. What's more, having a home life while at the same time "commuting" to a war zone can be difficult, says Lt. Col. Matt Martin, author of "Predator: The Remote-Control Air War Over Iraq and Afghanistan: A Pilot's Story."

"It takes some self-conditioning," he says. "You have to get good at compartmentalizing."

"If you go home and have dinner with your family, you don't want to think of something that happened earlier in the day," says Martin, who grappled with accidentally killing children during the hunt for insurgents. "You think about it later."

For this reason, some military officials are looking into putting more chaplains in UAV units, to be available for counseling. The military is also examining incorporating resiliency instruction into the training regime for new UAV pilots, adds Lilian Prince of the Air Force's School of Aerospace Medicine in Ohio.

Some military researchers are also lobbying simply to reconfigure the trailers where UAV pilots remotely operate the drones. The idea would be to transform these trailers, which are set up to resemble cockpits, into open work spaces where fellow UAV pilots and crews can see one another's faces and more easily communicate.

"They have to sit in a box, and you go, Why?" says Ortega. "You could be at a table like this, and then I could see you, and I could see that you're having trouble over there, and I'd say, 'Hey, you need some help over there?' " In that case, he adds, "I begin to actually use the power of the human being and those relationships even locally to help reduce some of that stress or increase performance or all sorts of things."

Right now, though, military culture continues to struggle to break free from institutional inertia, Ortega says. "Paradigms are just hard to break. They're hard to get out from."

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