The Air National Guardsmen who operate Predator drones over Iraq via remote control, launching deadly missile attacks from the safety of Southern California 7,000 miles away, are suffering some of the same psychological stresses as their comrades on the battlefield.
Working in air-conditioned trailers, Predator pilots observe the field of battle through a bank of video screens and kill enemy fighters with a few computer keystrokes. Then, after their shifts end, they get to drive home and sleep in their own beds.
That whiplash transition is taking a toll on some mentally, and so is the way the unmanned aircraft's cameras enable them to see people getting killed in high-resolution detail, some officers say.
“When you come in (with a fighter jet) at 500-600 mph, drop a 500-pound bomb and then fly away, you don't see what happens,” said Col. Albert Aimar, who is commander of the 163rd Reconnaissance Wing here and has a bachelor's degree in psychology. “Now you watch it all the way to impact, and I mean it's very vivid; it's right there and personal. So it does stay in people's minds for a long time.”
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The 163rd has called in a full-time chaplain and enlisted the services of psychologists and psychiatrists to ease the mental strain on these remote-control warriors, Aimar said. Chaplains have also been brought in at Predator bases in Texas, Arizona and Nevada.
In interviews with five of the dozens of pilots and sensor operators at the various bases, none said they had been particularly troubled, but they acknowledged the job brings unique challenges and sometimes makes for a strange existence.
“It is quite different, going from potentially shooting a missile, then going to your kid's soccer game,” said Lt. Col. Michael Lenahan, a Predator pilot and operations director for the 196th Reconnaissance Squadron here.
Among the stresses operators and commanders cite: the exhaustion that comes with the shift work of this 24-7 assignment; the classified nature of the job that demands silence at the breakfast table; and the images transmitted via video.
A Predator's cameras are powerful enough to let an operator distinguish between a man and a woman, and between different weapons on the ground. While the resolution is generally not high enough to make out faces, it is sharp, commanders say.
Often, the military also directs Predators to linger over a target after an attack so that the damage can be assessed.
“You do stick around and see the aftermath of what you did, and that does personalize the fight,” said Col. Chris Chambliss, commander of the active-duty 432nd Wing at Creech Air Force Base, Nev. “You have a pretty good optical picture of the individuals on the ground. The images can be pretty graphic, pretty vivid, and those are the things we try to offset. We know that some folks have, in some cases, problems.”
Chambliss said flying F-16 fighter jets on bombing runs in Iraq during the 1990s prepared him for his job as a Predator pilot. But Chambliss and several other wing leaders said they were concerned about sensor operators, who sit next to pilots in the ground control station. Often, the sensor operators are on their first assignment and just 18 or 19 years old, officers said.
While the pilot actually fires the missile, the sensor operator uses laser instruments to guide it all the way to its target.
On four or five occasions, sensor operators have sought a chaplain or supervisor after an attack, Chambliss said. He emphasized that the number of such cases is small compared with the number of people involved in Predator operations.
Col. Rodney Horn, vice commander of the 147th Reconnaissance Wing at Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base near Houston, said his unit impressed upon sensor operators the sometimes lethal nature of the job. “No one's walking into it blind,” he said.
Master Sgt. Keith LeQuire, a 48-year-old sensor operator here, said the 163rd asks prospective sensor operators whether they are prepared for the deadly serious mission. “No one's been naive enough to come in to interview but not know about that aspect of the job,” he said.
Unlike soldiers living together in the war zone, Predator operators do not have the close locker-room-style camaraderie that allows buddies to talk about the day's events and blow off steam. But many Predator operators at Creech employ a decompression ritual during the ride home, said Air Force Lt. Col. Robert P. Herz.
“They're putting a missile down somebody's chimney and taking out bad guys, and the next thing they're taking their wife out to dinner, their kids to school,” said Herz, a Ph.D. who interviewed pilots and sensor operators for a doctoral dissertation on human error in Predator accidents.
“A lot of them have told me, ‘I'm glad I've got the hour drive.' It gives them that whole amount of time to leave it behind,” Herz said. “They get in their bus or car and they go into a zone – they say, ‘For the next hour I'm decompressing, I'm getting re-engaged into what it's like to be a civilian.'”
Col. Gregg Davies, commander of the 214th Reconnaissance Group in Tucson, Ariz., said he knows of no one on his team who has experienced any trauma from launching a Predator attack.
Himself a Predator pilot, Davies said he finds the work rewarding. The Arizona Air National Guard unit flies Predators in both the Iraq and Afghanistan war zones. It has often protected American convoys, and its personnel have seen insurgents planting bombs.
“Our folks look at it as they're in the fight, they're saving lives,” Davies said. “They don't feel too bad about that.”