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.

Tony Avelar/The Christian Science Monitor/File
A US Air Force captain operates a Predator drone over Kandahar, Afghanistan, from Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nev.

America's decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have seen drone aircraft piloted from thousands of miles away become a primary instrument of American military might. But the Pentagon is only now beginning to come to grips with the question of what is it like for those pilots to "telecommute" to a battlefield – and what effect that is having on them.

The Pentagon calls it "telewarfare" – pilots fly unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, out of places like Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, from trailers equipped with video screens that allow them to watch the activity of insurgents half a world away and, when given an order, to kill them.

At the end of the day, these pilots then get in their cars and drive home to their families, mow the lawn and make dinner, or take their children to soccer practice.

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The result is an "existential conflict" in some UAV pilots, says Col. Hernando Ortega, surgeon for the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Agency. It is "a guilt feeling, perhaps – or a 'Did I make the right decision?' " he explains. " 'Was this a friendly fire incident? Was it a good outcome? Was it a bad outcome? Could I have done it better?' "

Pilots' struggles to compartmentalize these doubts amid an otherwise normal daily life – in addition to the stress of long hours and increasing demand for their skills – have prompted growing questions about whether the Pentagon should be waging these wars in ways to better care for the pilots doing the fighting.

The conclusion, in many cases, is yes. While the Pentagon has for many years laid tremendous emphasis on the need to care for the mental health of soldiers returning from foreign battlefields, it is now learning that it may need to apply some of these same lessons to the telecom-muters who go to war without ever leaving home.

"We have guys who have not deployed anywhere and yet can still have combat effects of distant places," Ortega says.

The concern is that war by remote control has grown faster than the Pentagon's ability to cope with its effects on the force, Ortega and others say. "There's huge sort-of inertia around this aviation culture," he warns, that portends "huge issues, really, for the Air Force."

Gradually, however, efforts to reexamine the culture have gained momentum. For example, some military officials are lobbying to change unnecessary overnight shifts that might compromise the judgment and performance of pilots, as well as work spaces that currently make it hard for pilots to see when their colleagues are particularly stressed.

This awareness is rising as demand for UAVs continues to grow. Though the weak economy has forced some cutbacks in defense spending, the Pentagon's latest budget sets aside some $5 billion for Predator and Reaper drones, which have become indispensable to commanders on modern battlefields.

This causes stresses of its own. The Air Force still doesn't have enough pilots to fly these drones, according to senior US military officials. For that reason, the Pentagon is scaling back the number of remotely piloted aircraft it purchases in order to focus on the training of UAV pilots. Yet the Pentagon still plans to step up the pace of combat air patrols – in essence, the number of 24-hour rotations of surveillance in the sky at any given time – from 61 currently to 65 next year. That number could surge to 85 during times of conflict.

The challenge of managing this mounting pressure on UAV pilots now in the force is one reason the Pentagon was particularly interested in examining pilot stress levels. It turns out that "a lot of these guys say they're subjectively very stressed," says Ortega. Workload issues are the top factor causing anxiety among the UAV crews, Ortega says. Along with long hours and fewer pilots than the Air Force needs, "shift work, schedule changes – those are top, No. 1 issues for stress," he adds.

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."

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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