(Mint Press) – In a new study from the United States Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center (AFHSC), it was found that remotely-based drone pilots experience combat-related mental issues at a rate equal to or greater than that of regular combat pilots that fought in American combats in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The AFHSC, “which analyzes health trends among military personnel,” was unable, however, to determine the cause for this level of mental health incidents, which includes depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress.
Air Force and independent experts, however, have suggested that there may be multiple culprits, including witnessing combat violence via live video feeds, working in isolation with inflexible work shifts, mounting stress due to the pressures of the job and crew shortages while juggling home, life and work.
As of 2008, the number of remotely-piloted aircraft pilots have grown fourfold to 1,300. It is expected that by 2015, there will be more drone pilots than bomber pilots. These figures do not include Central Intelligence Agency-controlled drones in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere.
The Pentagon has moved to recognize the growing significance of drone pilots. Last week, departing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta authorizes the forging and awarding of the Distinguished Warfare Medal, a new medal that recognizes troops that have a direct impact of combat operations, even from afar. “I’ve seen firsthand how modern tools, like remotely piloted platforms and cyber systems, have changed the way wars are fought,” Panetta said.
The first new combat-related medal since the Bronze Star in 1944, the Distinguished Warfare Medal — awarded to individuals “for ‘extraordinary achievement’ related to a military operation that occurred after Sept. 11, 2001” — outranks both the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star in the military’s order of precedence, which has raise the criticism of the new honor.
“Burning out” away from the “combat zone”
The Pentagon study shows that almost 30 percent of drone pilots suffered from “burnout.” “Burnout” is defined as “a state of physical and emotional exhaustion in which one feels a negative self-concept and negative attitude toward his job.” “Burnout” is seen among idealistic individuals who see their job expectations as being higher than reality; the forced acceptance of the realities of the job is seen to be too great to accept.
In military service, a certain sense of idealism is needed. The soldier must be able to support the mission that they are engaged in and be able to rationalize the violence and chaos he may see on-duty. With many drone pilots able to go home or go to a remote base after a shift, many drone pilots must deal with continuously shifting levels of anxiety. Many drone pilots must learn to “live with the war” while in their “down time.”
More pointedly, there is the issue of demand. While training for drone pilots has increased, expansions for drone coverage increases on a pace that outstrips manpower resources. There are drones in the air 24 hours a day, adding a toll on pilots that are forced to work longer and longer shifts.
The nature of drone piloting is different from manned flight as well. While a regular combat pilot would not necessary see a single plot of land more than once in an attack run, a drone pilot may study a piece of land for days or even months. In that time, the pilot would observe the patterns of life — families with children, farmers working the land, people living their everyday life — making it harder to kill something personally relatable.
Col. Kent McDonald, who co-authored the Pentagon study, stated that the Air Force tries to recruit individuals who are “family people,” who are well-adjusted and have “good values.” “When they have to kill someone,” he says, “or where they are involved in missions and then they either kill them or watch them killed, it does cause them to rethink aspects of their life.”
A 2011 survey of 840 drone operators show the 46 percent of Reaper and Predator pilots and 48 percent of Global Hawk sensor operators suffer from “high operational stress.” The study — which also looked at the electronic health records of 709 drone pilots and 5,256 traditional aircraft pilots between October 2003 and December 2011 found that drone pilots suffered from higher incidents of 12 conditions, including suicide ideation, anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse and depression.
However, once the figures were adjusted for tour of service, deployments and age, the results for both groups were similar.
While drone pilots are not directly in danger in combat missions, “that doesn’t mean that they’re immune to the other aspects of war,” McDonald said. “Killing in and of itself is difficult for any warrior to go through.”
There is little hope that the drone offensive will slow down. The Daily Mail has recently reported that President Obama has stated last Friday that 100 American soldiers have been deployed to Niger to establish a base for unmanned drones to conduct surveillance missions. In a letter to Congress, the president expressed that the forces “will provide support for intelligence collection and will also facilitate intelligence sharing with French forces conducting operations in Mali, and with other partners in the region.”
The expansion is seen as the president honoring his commitment to fight extremism globally without having to commit large numbers of ground forces.
Adding to the criticism of the drone program was the admission that former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was told not to disclose or acknowledge the existence of an assassination drone program while serving the president. “Here’s what’s inherently crazy about that proposition: you’re being asked a question based on reporting of a program that exists. So you’re the official government spokesperson acting as if the entire program … pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” Gibbs stated.
On February 20, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) stated that around 4,700 individuals — including civilians — have been killed by drone strikes. This number exceeds even independent estimates of the casualty rate.