CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, Nevada — “Doc,” one of America’s few practicing psychologists with top-secret clearance, spends his days talking to drone pilots. For security reasons, the Defense Department asked Defense One and other reporters not to refer to him by name. Doc is tall, slender, patient, and speaks with a slow and calm voice as he shoots down various popular notions about what it’s like to fly robots into war.
He is frustrated, he said, that some people picture the pilots as disengaged, mindlessly blasting away at targets like a kid playing Halo. “Nothing could be further from the truth. They are physiologically engaged with what’s going on,” he says. Nor are they burn-outs, shell-shocked by scenes of war. “The vast majority of folks aren’t being traumatized by what they’re seeing,” says Doc.
The absence of trauma, however, is not the same as the presence of happiness.
In a small base about 45 miles outside of Las Vegas, Nevada, and 63 miles north of a brothel called Sheri’s Ranch, the United States is at war. Since August, the drone operators of Creech Air Force Base have flown more than 3,300 sorties against the Islamic State, dropping bombs, firing missiles, guiding manned jets to their targets, and providing intelligence to coalition forces on the ground. Indeed, there is perhaps no U.S. military entity more directly engaged in the fight against the Islamic State.
They’re involved in every engagement that’s taking place in Operation Inherent Resolve, said Col. Jim Cluff, who commands the 432nd Wing and the 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing at Creech. And that has many of the men and women at Creech approaching a mental breaking point.
Studies have shown that 4.3 percent of Air Force drone operators report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. That’s “on the low end of rates (4–18%) of PTSD among those returning from the battlefield … and lower than projected lifetime risk of PTSD for Americans (8.7%, American Psychiatric Association, 2013)” according to a 2014 paper from the United Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine.
“The unique challenge of this situation is they think about combat a little bit differently,” Doc told Defense One. “If there’s a guy lobbing grenades at me, I don’t have time to consider, ‘What do I think about warfare?’ It’s a survival thing. Here, because we’re so far removed from the battlefield geographically, they’ll think about warfare in more philosophical terms. “
Col. Jim Chittenden, a drone pilot who once flew fighter jets, has the bearing of a man in excellent mental health. Flying Predators and Reapers made him feel more “engaged with the battlefield” — even though he was physically farther away. And the transition from speeding over the fight below at Mach 1 to flying in lazy circles for hours on end made him think about war “differently.”
He’s not the only one. The waning relevance of multi-million dollar fighter jets, designed to provide close air support or shoot down other aircraft and then rapidly fly back home, show how the wars a nation plans for aren’t the ones it fights. The drones that putter into a combat zone and loiter for a full day with just enough munitions to destroy a clay house are technology’s answer to asymmetrical warfare. Today’s flying robots are a weapon to be used against individuals, not nation-states.
Those who operate the drones are drawn into an intense and intimate form of warfare. A team of drone operators might fly 6,000 hours, watching and waiting, before striking a target. All that time can create a surreal bond between an operator and the subject of surveillance.
“You’re tracking an individual house because they think it’s a hotbed for meetings and you watch people drink their tea on the porch,” said Capt. Kristi, a drone operator identified here by her rank and first name only. “You know what gas station people go to. There’s an odd sense of voyeurism. It’s like, ‘Hey, it’s getting to be 10:15; I’ll bet he’s going to have his tea. At 10:45, he’ll go to the gas station down the street to get his Luckies.’ There’s a part of you that feels like ‘I know more about this house’s life than I know about my own right now.’”
Kristi, who has been flying combat missions for three years, said the most difficult aspect of the job is not what she sees directly. It’s the feeling of impotence that comes from her ability to shape some outcomes but not others. It follows her when she heads home at day’s end. “You can be in there for eight hours … you can be following a guy that you know committed some horrible crime and you’re thinking about those things the entire day.”
In a way, her ability to “just go home” makes it worse. “With other assets, you’re deployed and you make it back to your base, there’s a camaraderie. You can say, ‘I just flew the worst mission.’ There’s a sense of family, cohesiveness. Here, we get in a car and go to a five-year-old’s soccer game,” she said.
This isolation, which distinguishes the job of drone pilot from others in the military, is tough but, technically speaking, it isn’t trauma. It’s a new malady that the military doesn’t know how to recognize.
But Kristi does not exist in a permanent state of suffering. She feels deeply connected to the work she does and the rewards that it offers. “When you can loiter over an area for 24 hours, and have constant handover with a similar asset, and the next day you’re in the same area and the same town, you know ‘That trash can wasn’t here yesterday.’ So if you know friendly forces are going to go through, you can tell them, ‘This looks different. I saw it.’ That can be incredibly helpful.”
Kristi’s wants are few. More than anything, she said, she would welcome “meaningful” time away from the front line. In military parlance, this is called dwell time, a rotation back to a home base after being deployed to a war zone. But the military does not acknowledge that the drone operators at Creech are in a war zone, although they’re fighting the Pentagon’s war. For them, dwell time is non-existent.
In part, this is due to a shortage of qualified pilots. On any given day, says Lt. Col. Leland Cowie, who commands the 11th Reconnaissance Squadron, he is missing one-third of the pilots he needs. In May, a GAO inspection found that only 35 percent of Air Force and Army drone pilots had completed the training needed to fly the full spectrum of potential missions. (The GAO found essentially the same thing last year.) In order for Cowie to get more operators, current operators have to train them. But there aren’t enough operators to do both training and conduct operations. It’s a Catch-22.
A World Without Light
“I can fly our crews every day,” said Col. Jim Cluff, who commands the 432nd Wing and the 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing at Creech. “There’s no dwell for them. Some of them have flown combat straight three, four, five years.” The operators under his command are “constantly engaged in combat for years at a time.” The effect of that is real.
Doc, the psychologist, says this lack of “battle rhythm” can affect the psyche and condition. “We know people do well when there’s light on the end of the tunnel.”
He isn’t alone in this concern. The absence of light, is, of course, darkness. It’s one reason that psychologist Rollo May described depression as “the inability to construct a future.” That description also applies to many of the men and women at Creech.
As technologies advance, Cowie is worried that policymakers will ignore the effects on operators. “We’re going to start fielding variants that fly longer than 24 hours. How do you provide manning to support that?”
There’s no easy way to give America’s drone pilots time away from the screen, and the problem will likely get worse before it gets better. The United States is ambivalent about its war against the Islamic State, as shown by the president’s own remarks regarding the use of force in Iraq and Syria. Speaking to reporters in February, Obama promised to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the enemy but not to send ground combat forces to help. The drone warriors pay the price for that policy.
At the entrance to the main facility at Creech, an oval plaque mounted on a concrete base reads, “Through These Doors Passes the Future of Aviation.” Yet the men and women at the forefront of that revolution have no sense of how their circumstances might change or improve, no sense of their own future. For the Pentagon, they are indispensable, and they are few.
There’s no telling when they’ll be allowed to truly go home.