For America’s drone warriors, help to deal with mental and physical tolls

Commanders at the top-secret operations center in Virginia are bringing in chaplains, physicians, and others. They’re also rethinking the long work shifts.

USAF/Reuters/File
A US Air Force MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle flies near the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, Calif., in this Jan. 7, 2012, photo.

At the top-secret operations center here, Predator and Reaper drones scanning the skies of the Middle East stream back the data equivalent of two entire Library of Congress collections per day.

It is the responsibility of thousands of college-age analysts here to pore over the intelligence, fulfilling the orders of “client” commanders who may have questions about everything from the daily habits of Islamic State soldiers to the results of bombing campaigns.

For the past decade, these US Air Force analysts have been on “surge” footing, working shifts that can extend as long as 14 hours, day after day. 

These hours have taken their toll on the force, say commanders. Watching Islamic State brutalities unfold in high definition has potential repercussions. Even the sugary energy drinks that the analysts slug can take a physical toll.

And so for the past year, commanders here have been trying to figure out ways to mitigate the intense strains and pressures on those who are handling crucial intelligence streams for America’s military campaigns abroad.

They have brought in chaplains, physicians, and mental health professionals, screening them for top-secret security clearances. That way, the analysts can discuss in detail what they’ve seen in the drone video footage, should they choose to, without having to worry about compromising security.

“Anybody that’s involved with observing an atrocity – we’re concerned. That’s not what we’d want anybody to be seeing on a daily basis,” says Col. Timothy Haugh, who commands the 480th Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) Wing.

The wing is now making sure that all its analysts go through a debriefing after particularly difficult shifts. “For anybody that sees and observes something that would be considered an atrocity, we all take something different away from that. That’s one of the things we’ve learned.”

“We can see the digging of the mass graves. Our job here is to put the pieces together to let [commanders] know they’re digging a mass grave,” says Senior Airman Kayla, who wears a strip of packing tape over her name badge. (The airmen here are permitted to identify themselves only by rank and first name.)

“There are multiple times when you come out of a mission and left feeling in a bad mood.” But now that there are chaplains and counselors to speak with, “I know multiple people taking advantage of the things we have,” she says. “It definitely helps.”

So, too, does the wing’s golden retriever Lucky, who replaced his counterpart Lily when she was transferred to another unit. He roams the operations floor, and analysts can sign him out and take him for walks during their breaks.

The command has also put new vending machines in the lobby, stocked with coconut water and juice.

“It has better stuff – an alternative to Red Bulls,” 1st Lt. Adam says. “It gives us access to things that don’t destroy our teeth.”

In addition, the base gym now stays open 24 hours a day to accommodate shift workers. 

Most important, the hours for the analysts have gone down considerably, thanks to a new shift schedule that the command has put in place.

Dozens of hours of overnight shift work can get analysts “into an ugly cycle if you continue it for too long,” Colonel Haugh says.

Now, 60 percent of the unit’s analysts have had their hours decreased 30 hours per month, allowing them a more normal workweek. Now, they work no more than 10 hours a day, for three days per week, with three days off.

Before, “you were either working 12 hours of daylight, or 12 hours of nighttime,” Staff Sgt. Jacob says. “Now you get to see your family more, you get tasks accomplished, and you don’t have to wait for your days off to do it. It opens you up to have a normal life.”

His family is “just ecstatic,” he says. Under the old workweek, “the days that you’re working you basically go home, and you eat or sleep, and you get five to 10 minutes of family time.”

Now, Staff Sergeant Jacob says, not only is he more alert at work, but he also gets more family time – “and more date nights with the wife.”

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