Military Connection: Drone Operators Contracting PTSD

drone operators

By Debbie Gregory.

Throughout time, those who have gone to war have experienced what was then referred to as Soldier’s Heart, Shell Shock, War Neurosis, War Hysteria, and Combat Stress Reaction.  Today, these conditions are known as post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), and with the evolution of warfare, we are finding new and surprising methods of contracting PTSD. One of the latest discoveries is that more and more drone operators are complaining of PTSD symptoms.

Many in the military call drone operators “Nintendo Warriors,” implying that their contributions to military operations are merely glorified video gaming. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The reality is that drones operators, including pilots, camera operators, intelligence gatherers, communications experts, and maintenance workers, are involved in nearly every ground and air operation around the globe. This is especially true in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq and Syria. And the role of drones is only increasing.

So while many other service members joke about the fact that drone operators can complete their missions after a morning commute stateside, and debrief at a TGI Fridays or Chili’s after “doing nothing but staring at video screens all day,” they can’t see the whole picture. Most Air Force pilots are logging somewhere in the area of 300 hours of flight-time per year, most of which is training. Most drone operators are logging 900-1,800 hours per year, nearly all of it while conducting active operations.

Drone operators are tasked with watching over U.S. forces on the ground, collecting intelligence photos and video feeds, and sometimes engaging enemy targets. Since the U.S. started conducting airstrikes against the Islamic State last August, at least three to four drones have taken part in every airstrike.

Drone missions are much different than other airstrike missions. The majority of the time, drone operators have been tracking a particular target for an extended period of time, collecting intelligence, before they are authorized to “eliminate” that target. This is opposed to other fighter, bomber and attack pilots, who often “rain hell from above” on unseen targets. And while other pilots are often on to another target or on their way back to the airfield, drone operators are regularly under orders to confirm that their target has been destroyed, meaning that they are often subjected to watching human beings in pain or dying from their actions.

The toll that the nature and the frequency of missions are taking on drone operators is as real as their contribution to U.S. military efforts. And more and more, operators are complaining of stress and PTSD-type symptoms.

For the mission workload that it wants to sustain, the Air Force needs to maintain a force of around 1,700 drone operators. There are currently only approximately one thousand operators currently serving, and they are being tasked with the work-load of 1,700. Nearly 240 drone operators leave the service each year, and with the Air Force only able to train somewhere in the neighborhood of 180 replacement drone operators per year, it’s easy to do the math and see that the void is only increasing.

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Military Connection: Drone Operators Contracting PTSD: By Debbie Gregory