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The Military Hardware

USAF Enlists Shrinks To Help Drone Pilots Cope 587

An anonymous reader writes "Flying drones from halfway-across the world used to be considered a cushy military job. But the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have become so dependent on the robo-planes that the Air Force has called in chaplains and psychiatrists to help these remote-control warriors cope. 'In a fighter jet, "when you come in at 500-600 miles per hour, drop a 500-pound bomb and then fly away, you don't see what happens," said Colonel Albert K. Aimar, who is commander of the 163d Reconnaissance Wing here and has a bachelor's degree in psychology. But when a Predator fires a missile, "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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USAF Enlists Shrinks To Help Drone Pilots Cope

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  • by BWJones ( 18351 ) * on Friday August 08, 2008 @02:03PM (#24528945) Homepage Journal

    So, while this has received some criticism, I visited Creech AFB [utah.edu] a little while ago and the missions being flown from there in the Middle East and South America are more taxing and complex than you might expect.

    Loiter times and length of engagements for these aircraft are not measured in minutes like with traditional fighter jets or helicopters. Rather they are measured in hours with the Predator A airframes capable of loitering over a combat area for 10-13 hours at a time. The Reaper has a slightly shorter loiter time, but those airframes also carry the same combat load as an F-16 and the missions being carried out are just as complex if not more demanding than with piloted missions.

    Because UAV missions can last quite a bit of time, the pilots are expected to multi-task with ground troops for extended periods of time, tracking targets and managing data in a way that traditional piloted aircraft crews are not expected to. I observed a number of missions including missions that involved oversight for ground troops and elimination of targets that were active threats to those soldiers on the ground and even though the missions were being piloted from the other side of the globe, the tension in the "cockpit" was palpable. There is no celebration when a target has been engaged successfully and you are very much an intimate observer of what transpires and able to see more than you might expect.

    The final telling statistic in this comment thread anyway, has been that the 432nd wing has become in the last couple of years, the Air Force's number one most requested asset and the toll rapid build ups like that take on any organization can be significant.

    • aside from the realism and the fact that actual people are involved, how come you never see anything like this for video games? In fact you see quite the opposite. Maybe, as horrible as it sounds, they should promote a light, gamer atmosphere and different approaches to missions to help them to disassociate what they are doing with murder.
    • I fully respect that from time to time, horrible things must be done.

      That said, I hope the USAF has only limited success with brainwashing all the guilt away. Guilt is important. Guilt is what reminds us what is morally right. When the operator pushes the button that fires the missile people die. Again, I understand that sometimes it must be done. But the decision to kill should be tough and difficult and fraught with guilt.

  • by ElectricTurtle ( 1171201 ) on Friday August 08, 2008 @02:07PM (#24529017)
    I don't see how this all that different from the gunners on an AC-130 who watch everything they shoot. It's not all fire and forget pushbutton in the Air Force. Sounds just like an old problem in a new role, not much worth noting. Killing people isn't supposed to be fun or normal, that's not news.
  • Welcome to warfare (Score:5, Interesting)

    by e2d2 ( 115622 ) on Friday August 08, 2008 @02:07PM (#24529023)

    Welcome to warfare. This is not much different than the same consultations offered ground troops who get up close and personal. The military realized that killing someone else really changes a person early on and brought in people who could help - religious leaders and shrinks.

    Thank God I was in the Army during a peaceful period. I would certainly regret taking another life, even if I could justify it as the warrior way (don't be on a battlefield without being ready to kill or die). Particularly when today's battles are so one-sided and the targets mingle amongst the population.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Lumpy ( 12016 )

      Killing a person changes you? killing ANYTHING changes you a lot.

      Remember the first animal you killed? not accidentally, but determined and calculated, you took aim and pulled the trigger to kill it.

      That changes you a LOT.

  • Not to mention the ego boosting attention a real pilot gets and the thrill of actually flying, but then there is the risk of dying and the thousands of hours of training. I guess flying a drone is somewhere in between MS Flight Sim and the real thing.

    • I'm sure a lot of things are between those two extremes, however since they're piloting multimillion dollar pieces of hardware I guarantee its closer to the "real thing"
  • Damn... what's the point of having a technology sufficiently far advanced that you can conduct a remote-control war if the button-pushing still results in some kind of scarring, albeit emotional?

    Might as well just send in the pikemen...

  • I agree that shrinks are needed regarding army in iraq/afganistan, but they must focus where the real problem is, in the other end of the chain of command.
  • by meringuoid ( 568297 ) on Friday August 08, 2008 @02:11PM (#24529101)
    Rather than spending a fortune on shrinks, why not hire a programmer instead? Just have the display overlay something like, oh... 'Direct Hit! 10,000' when the bomb goes off. And keep a high score. That'll help the pilot achieve the necessary mental disconnect between his own actions and the gruesome fate of the people on the ground, and enable him to defend our freedom much more effectively without unfortunate side-effects like conscience or remorse.

    Bonus points for hitting weddings, Chinese embassies, and British armoured columns.

  • Flying drones from halfway-across the world used to be considered a cushy military job

    I'm a flying drone and I can tell you, after flying all the way across the ocean your arms get tired pretty fast!

    The guy at the controls is under stress, too.

    (Damn it, I wanted to post anonymously but since I made a comment 17 minutes ago I can't)

  • Everyday.. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by aero2600-5 ( 797736 ) on Friday August 08, 2008 @02:13PM (#24529135)
    Everyday, we closer to Ender's Game.

    Apparently, the solution is to recruit kids and tell them it's just a video game.

  • Let's stop killing each other.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      I've got a more realistic solution - let's all start killing each other indiscriminately.

      Mine at least has a chance of actually happening.

  • by gillbates ( 106458 ) on Friday August 08, 2008 @02:16PM (#24529195) Homepage Journal

    Killing someone - whether up close and personal - or from halfway around the world, should make someone feel uncomfortable. When war becomes little more than a video game, without a view of the human cost, tyranny becomes inevitable. Just witness what happened with "smart weapons" and the U.S. -> high tech weaponry and minimal collateral damage made it all the more easily to justify invading a country under the guise of liberating them.

  • Mirror image SF... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by argent ( 18001 )

    I just read "Spin Control" by Chris Moriarty. In this novel, to reduce troop losses along the Palestine-Israeli border both sides have the soldiers remote-controlled by an AI (called "EMET" on the Israeli side, after the word "Truth" inscribed on the Golem of Prague's forehead). The AI is "told" that it's just playing a video game, and when it realizes that its "character" is a real person killing other real people it can't deal with it... so they terminate it and boot up another copy that hasn't had that r

  • by tgd ( 2822 )

    Lets see...

    Fly a plane. Get shot at. Drop a bomb. Get shot at some more. Land plane. Eat dinner with grubby sweaty guys. Dodge mortar attacks. Crawl into bed dodging sand fleas.


    Fly a plane by remote. Drop a bomb. See results. Take a break, talk about last night's game. Fly some more. Hit Taco Bell for lunch. Fly some more, drop another bomb. See the results. Grab some coffee. Stop at Petco to get cat food on the way home. Order in chinese, watch How's It Made while you're eating. Surf the net, crawl into

    • Re:Hmmmm (Score:5, Insightful)

      by RockoTDF ( 1042780 ) on Friday August 08, 2008 @03:00PM (#24529963) Homepage
      And I'm sure you could deal with your kids asking you every night at dinner why you have a thousand yard stare...if you are even home for dinner, granting the length of these missions. My father did 26 years in the AF flying F16s, F117s, and Predators. The only combat and killing he did was in predators. It affected him, I know. Maybe not as much as his friends who flew above convoys under attack and watched powerlessly from above in F16s with enough munitions to wipe out the whole area but couldn't because they aren't mindless killing machines. If you really think that its that simple and that easy then you are horrendously mistaken.
  • Only the "Chingers" are human babies and mothers.

  • Why would they want people just killing other humans without fear or sympathy? The fact of the matter is when you're killing from that distance, there is no way to know if that person or persons "deserved" it. For all you know, the person who gave the order just didn't like that neighborhood.
  • Now here's an idea (Score:5, Insightful)

    by SirGarlon ( 845873 ) on Friday August 08, 2008 @02:29PM (#24529423)

    I completely believe that these UAV pilots experience stress from, well, killing people.

    My idea is this: now that the U.S. military has the technology to kill people from halfway across the globe without exposing the pilot to physical danger, let's let the President sit next to the pilot and push the button for a couple of those missions, then sit there and watch the blood and destruction.

    I think this should be a mandatory experience for anyone who has the authority to order an attack. Military officers have a good chance of having fought in combat already; now let's let the President experience killing an enemy and watching him die. Then we'll see whether his attitude toward using military force displays a little more, let's say, maturity.

    • they know that by putting soldiers on the ground that some will not return.

      Having them participate in killing the enemy directly isn't going to do anything. In fact it will probably cause more harm because some Presidents may not have willpower to do what is right even if it is morally distasteful.

      Many officers have served and been in conflicts where they were directly involved. The fact is that there needs to be some separation in order to perform the job properly. Just as above, if it distracts from th

  • Purpose (Score:5, Interesting)

    by causality ( 777677 ) on Friday August 08, 2008 @02:29PM (#24529431)
    It seems to me that if we had a more solid purpose for fighting, then this wouldn't be nearly the concern that is indicated in the summary. Let's say a hostile foreign army invaded US soil. Do you think that people fighting that army, that army which directly threatens their homes and their children and their homeland, would have such concerns about the casualties they have to inflict?

    Whether politicians prefer to call it "pre-emptive" or not, what we are doing is fighting an offensive war. In the case of Iraq this is against an enemy which was no real threat to us, which is why the "justification" so quickly changed from "weapons of mass destruction" to "liberation of the Iraqi people". In the back of their minds, in some place that is untouched by denial, our soldiers have to see just how convenient this whole war has been for the expansion of executive power, the passage of legislation like the Patriot Act, the no-bid contracts for companies that our Vice President and others just-coincidentally happens to have ties to. Despite the incredibly bravery and willingness to put their lives on the line that our soldiers have shown (seriously, these guys have balls of brass and guts of steel; they are not the problem), there is very little honor to be had in a war of this type. Don't mistake me for a pacifist just because I think we need a damned good reason before we go and kill a lot of people; a reason that will stand up to questioning and critical thinking; a reason that does not have the taint of political and financial gain everywhere you look.

    When an enemy attacks and like-it-or-not you are forced to defend yourself, the horrors of conflict are not your fault and they are not what you asked for. They are what you had to do. Despite that, it may still take the defenders a long time to learn to cope with the horrors they have witnessed. Just imagine how much harder that must be when you also know that you are the aggressor. Like too many things we do, this is a band-aid designed to alleviate a symptom and not a solution to the actual underlying problem.

    War is a terrible, hellish, ugly thing. It's supposed to be. That is its nature, and that is what the drone pilots are finding out the hard way. It's not supposed to be something you do for a questionable reason. What an insult to such honorable men that our leadership puts them through this, and for what?
  • by Illbay ( 700081 ) on Friday August 08, 2008 @02:30PM (#24529443) Journal
    ...Their officers are referring them to shrinks to help them tone down the "yeah, how do you like me now, Ahmed!" and "there's a little sand in your shorts, Ali!" comments that are making it hard for the admins to concentrate on their paperwork.
  • Catch-22 (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Chyeld ( 713439 ) <chyeld@NOSPAm.gmail.com> on Friday August 08, 2008 @02:39PM (#24529627)

    There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. (Lt.) Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

                                    "That's some catch, that Catch-22," he [Yossarian] observed.
                                    "It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed.

    Well, one hopes not at least, but having grown up in the military, I could easily see one being in place.

  • by fahrbot-bot ( 874524 ) on Friday August 08, 2008 @02:42PM (#24529679)
    Considering that pilots in theater spend their off hours with other people in theater, who share in the same situation, while UAV pilots (in Utah) go home to their spouse and kids and I can see a potential need for them to have someone to talk to.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by geekoid ( 135745 )

      I doubt they can talk to anyone in their family the same way they can talk to a shrink, or about the same stuff.
      I'm just guessing, but I would think details of their mission would be classified.

  • On Killing (Score:4, Interesting)

    by GBC ( 981160 ) * on Friday August 08, 2008 @02:50PM (#24529799)
    I don't think this situation is anything new for the military.

    If you are interested in the psychological aspects, I recommend reading a book called On Killing [wikipedia.org], by Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman. One of the key insights in the book was how the military changed their training (e.g. by making man shaped targets instead of circles) to make people more effective at firing weapons and killing. It has been a few years since I last read it, but I found it fascinating.

    He suggested that distance from target increases your ability to cope with killing someone as it depersonalises the situation - so the closer in you are, the harder it becomes to do the deed and/or to cope with it afterwards (at least without training). That seems to back up this situation as the drone pilots see the results of their handiwork - unlike other pilots or those manning artillery.
  • Conscience (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Kelbear ( 870538 ) on Friday August 08, 2008 @02:54PM (#24529863)

    I respect them for having the conscience to consider the consequences of their actions. I hope that they also receive the treatment necessary to ensure that they are not also crippled by their conscience.

    I'm worried that none of the people who are in a position to stop the war find a need for this treatment. They are too insulated.

  • by Halo- ( 175936 ) on Friday August 08, 2008 @02:55PM (#24529867)
    I think the point a lot of posters are missing is that this is a different kind of combat. Normally, battle is kill or be killed. Even in cases where the odds are grossly one-sided (say, an AC-130 gunship verses ground troops) there is still an element of danger for both sides. (You never know when a missle might pop up, or anti-air, or even a plane crash)

    The soldiers I've known have been big on honor. And while I'm not saying any way flying a drone is dishonorable, it's a lot harder to justify internally on an instinctual "if I don't kill him, I would have been killed" level. It's like being a sniper, except without the personal risk.

  • by plopez ( 54068 ) on Friday August 08, 2008 @03:00PM (#24529959) Journal

    Might give war a bad name or something. War seems so... warlike. Can't we call it something like, oh, aggressive defense? Can't we call accidentally killing women and children by accident something nice and sanitary like "collateral damage?"

    Of course that was sarcasm. But one of the biggest gripes I have is how we sanitize war. We need to show what war is really like in all its brutality. Then when people vote for war, they will know what they are voting for. To sanitize it is to spread disinformation and undermine democracy by not allowing the people to weigh all the consequences of a march to war.

    Like this one, which was suppressed by the MSM in the US:
    http://tbn0.google.com/images?q=tbn:Fsee4zZHXInj6M:http://www.peace.ca/faceof1.jpg [google.com]

    Now pardon me while I go puke.

  • by Digital Vomit ( 891734 ) on Friday August 08, 2008 @03:36PM (#24530577) Homepage Journal

    Wouldn't it be cheaper to modify the drone's camera software to simply send back images of 60s Batman-esque impact placards whenever a piece of ordnance strikes its target? The remote pilot would see the missile get fired away, then, just as it strikes its target, a comical "POW!" or "ZOT!" or "BLAMMO!" image appears overtop the carnage.

    I daresay this would help our servicemen cope. ;-)

  • by purpleraison ( 1042004 ) on Friday August 08, 2008 @04:06PM (#24531061) Homepage Journal

    I am stationed at a base where they actually do this stuff, and they only have 1 shrink at the moment who just arrived. They were down to none, and had a civilian contractor filing in.

    Trust me -- The USAF wants you to think they do what's right, but that is just Grade-A disinformation (or propaganda if you prefer).

    In all honesty these people are pushed into dealing with their problems on their own, and the AF just covers their butt.

The best defense against logic is ignorance.