Drone pilots get stressed, too

| February 23, 2013

The New York Times reports that a study from the Defense Department states that drone pilots thousands of miles from the war suffer from the same stresses as though who are actually engaged face-to-face with the enemy;

But Air Force officials and independent experts have suggested several potential causes, among them witnessing combat violence on live video feeds, working in isolation or under inflexible shift hours, juggling the simultaneous demands of home life with combat operations and dealing with intense stress because of crew shortages.

“Remotely piloted aircraft pilots may stare at the same piece of ground for days,” said Jean Lin Otto, an epidemiologist who was a co-author of the study. “They witness the carnage. Manned aircraft pilots don’t do that. They get out of there as soon as possible.”

Dr. Otto said she had begun the study expecting that drone pilots would actually have a higher rate of mental health problems because of the unique pressures of their job.

Obviously, this is an attempt by the Defense Department to elevate the status of their drone operators, but it’s making them look ridiculous and it encourages the inter-services rivalry. As TSO reported the other day, the DoD isn’t backing down from their Distinguished Warfare Medal and the fact that it rates above a Bronze Star Medal, so I guess they’re trying to justify that bit of idiocy.

I’m not picking on drone operators, some of whom are here on TAH, many are lurking quietly. They serve like the rest of us serve – doing the jobs that most Americans won’t. But, the article states things like balancing home life with their careers as a factor – I guess its more difficult to leave your family for an eight-hour shift knowing you’re coming home alive than it is leaving your family behind for more than a year and wondering in how many pieces you’ll return.

Honestly, I don’t want to demean the jobs that these folks do – their contribution to the war is indeed significant, but this overblown BS coming out of the Defense Department make it difficult to do otherwise. I just watched an entire hour of Inside Combat Rescue, I wonder if I have issues. Or maybe these DoD doctors should check on the mental health of folks who watch a Band of Brothers marathon for ten hours straight. FFS.

Category: Air Force, Military issues

Comments (32)

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  1. Robert says:

    Think they’ll claim PTSD by proxy?

  2. SJ says:

    “Band of Brothers marathon for ten hours straight”

    That’s my Vet’s Day tradition. It’s hard on the liver.

    Agree with what you wrote.

  3. rb325th says:

    I cannot for the life of me wrap my head around the logic of those who have made these decisions…. Sure they are Uncle Joes favorite children, and such a huge part of his War of the Drones. Still, you would have thought that somewhere along the way, some Field Grade Officer or dozen would have said WTF and put a hold on this idiocy.

    I value every service members contributions, but dammit to elevate a person playing a multi million dollar video game over a grunt up to his eyeballs in the mud and bullets….. kind of makes you wonder what our elite leadership really thinks of the guys on the ground. Guess it is maybe more like what Kerry said…

  4. FaST Surgeon says:

    It simply is devaluing those combat troops who serve in theater. But so does giving a bronze star to a Fobbit (but that’s another story).

  5. Loach says:

    Did you kill anyone while you were watching TV? Pulling the trigger on a drone has got to be a lot different than watching TV or playing a video game. Pushing the button in a B17 screwed up bombardiers knowing they were killing people. Drone pilots have the same stress also working under strict ROE which means they sometimes feel helpless to help their fellow soldiers in high stress situations. Do I think they should get a medal above the BS? No of course not. Do I think it’s more stressful than getting shot at? No of course not. But nothing is accomplished by denigrating their contribution or waving off the difficulty of their job.

  6. rb325th says:

    B-17 Bombardiers were sitting in a tiny confined space being bombarded by flak, hunted by Messerschmidts, dying in huge numbers being blown out of the sky…. really not a good analogy there Loach. Not even close.
    No one is devaluing or denigrating their contributions, unfortunately though some are elevating it to a status that is above those on the grounds contributions. Much of which goes unrecognized.

  7. MCPO NYC USN (Ret.) says:

    Can you just imagine:

    The first sorry ass sucker who is awared this medal, stellar career and all, and we fine out that he retires early and has been awarded 30 – 40 % disability from the VA for PTSD.

    Oh … yes … according to the information above … it is like teeing up your first ball on the hole # 1.

    Ah … look at the bright side. All these guys (and gals) will have plenty of work after their mil careers considering we will have 30,000 UAV patrolling the skies of the good ole’ USA by 2020.

  8. Eggs says:

    “They witness the carnage. Manned aircraft pilots don’t do that. They get out of there as soon as possible.”

    I believe the members of the rotary wing community would call bullshit on that idiotic statement.

  9. AtDrum says:

    Yes, it is bullshit. Even the medevacs see worse stuff in a short year tour than a drone “pilot” ever will. I’ve seen good people cry as they hose blood from their birds.

    Christ even a Cook working as a doorgunner (and yes some do) deserve more than a video game flyer.

  10. Ex-PH2 says:

    Juggling the demands of the remote warfare job with the demands of home life?

    I’ve worked longer hours than any of those drone pilots, and so have a lot of other people here. I can sympathize with air controllers a lot more than with this bunch of whiny people. Cryptographers in WWII had a hell of a stress load. Some of them cracked under the pressure.

    Sorry, not getting any sympathy from me.

  11. RandyB says:

    I agree with most of you folks.

    I just want it emphasized that I think the medal itself is a good idea. Although there’s no personal risk (even the drone mechanics face a lot more of that), it probably can screw you up psychologically.

    It’s only the order of precedence that’s the problem — and a big one. Valor means something.

    I recall seeing a severely burned disabled vet on TV who lost the use of all his limbs in a horrific accident in Iraq. He was driving a fuel truck in a war zone, which is an extremely brave thing to do. And yet, he didn’t merit a Purple Heart because he was the victim of an accident. I’d have made a medal for that guy before the drone operators.

  12. SJ says:

    If a poser wears one will that count as stolen valor?

    It will take stones to go in the club a Nellis wearing one of these.

    Do they get combat pay and tax exemption?

  13. Common Sense says:

    OK, I can see that witnessing “carnage” could be stressful, but the other reasons given are just normal life for anyone in IT.

    In the past, I’ve worked 80-90 hour weeks for months on end. My regular schedule now is 45-50 hours a week, no overtime. I still have releases that take place in the middle of the night. We’re a very small company and our two developers are on call 24/7. We all usually work for at least part of our vacations. we had to let our customer service guy go last year, he wasn’t replace, so I added his work to my own. And we haven’t had a raise or bonus in over 3 years.

    You do what you have to do and if you don’t like it, quit and find a different job.

    I think that medals at that level should be reserved for people who put themselves in harms way while going above and beyond.

  14. Hondo says:

    SJ: to answer your first question, my take is a qualified yes. Technically, it’s not – but the term “stolen valor” has been used enough as a synonym for “wearing unauthorized military decorations” that it’s become the accepted common name. It’s much like calling any photocopier a “Xerox machine”, even if many (if not most) aren’t made by the Xerox Corporation any more.

    As for your second question: no, they’re not. And that brings up an interesting possibility.

    I understand that the USAF was a major player in the creation of this new abomination. I wonder if this new abomination is merely the USAF’s modern-day “in your face” answer to getting slapped down for their 1999 travesty of awarding BSMs to folks in CONUS for “supporting the war in Kosovo”. That bit of idiocy (which the Navy assisted, by the way, by awarding a few BSMs to folks in Germany and/or Italy for supporting the same operation) was the primary factor that led to the legal prohibition of receipt of a BSM unless also in receipt of combat pay/imminent danger pay. That prohibition was written into Federal law as part of the 2001 NDAA.

  15. Hondo says:

    RandyB: I’d have to disagree – there is absolutely no need for this new medal. Suitable noncombat and/or dual-purpose decorations already exist to recognize the performance of UAV and cyber operators providing support for combat operations.

    If they’re in-theater, UAV and cyber personnel are eligible for a BSM (as well as MSMs, Commendation Medals, and Achievement Medals – all of which can now be awarded in a combat zone). If they’re not in-theater, they can still be awarded an MSM, Commendation Medal, or Achievement Medal – and if a UAV operator, an Air Medal or Aerial Achievement Medal should also be apropos.

    Hell, if the act is truly exceptional even an LOM might be appropriate. But that would IMO have to have been for something that was a real “game changer” at the theater level.

    Further, rating this abomination above the BSM is a freaking slap in the face to anyone who’s actually put themselves in harm’s way in a combat zone. That’s true whether or not they were awarded a BSM for doing so.

    Bottom line: this new decoration is absolutely unnecessary. This idiocy really has the BS flag flying high – and it’s flapping so hard in the wind it’s beginning to fray at the trailing edge.

  16. SJ says:

    A few years ago I worked on a UAV project to develop Joint TTP’s for their employment…they weren’t armed then. A bit of kerfuffle was that the USAF insisted the operators had to be officers and the Army said enlisted were fine. Never heard how that settled out.

    Back to this award. Kinda like what is often said here when a poser who served legitimately and honorably could not leave it there and had to embellish. Drone folks contribute immensely to the the fight. If a grunt was in a bar and met the drone bubba that saved his bacon, the drone guy would drink for free. Leave it there.

  17. FatCircles0311 says:

    Boots that live in the fricken barracks have to deal with more stress than drone operators on “deployment”. This is more officer “me too” absurdity.

    Who knew that sandy vaginas now constitute metal health problems.

  18. NHSparky says:

    Yup–unless and until the risk of a UAV pilot getting killed/wounded while doing a mission (and not by a coffee spill or thumb blister) rises above, oh, ZERO, color me unimpressed.

  19. DaveO says:

    The issue is not whether droneys contribute to the fight or not. The issue is whether we as a nation will continue to place greater value in courage “Under Fire” over not-courage.

    By “not-courage” I do not mean cowardice, but the absence of courage. A droney can’t feel fear because the robot is in combat, not the droney. A droney can’t overcome fear by courage because there is no fear.

    We Americans place greater value in courage – evidenced by the continuing BS we see with Stolen Valor – and the droneys getting special awards, and combat-like ratings/incentives – undermine America’s valuation.

    Droneys want some of that? Make droney an MOS that can only be had AFTER a hitch in the infantry, or flying.

  20. Hondo says:

    SJ: no argument that UAV and cyber operators contribute. Like many of the others in the IC, you rarely hear about their contributions to the fight – but those contributions are huge.

    Rather, the argument is with the need for “special recognition” for work that is – while important and technically difficult – no more important than that of those providing logistical, comm/IT, administrative support, or medical support from safe locations outside the theater of operations. It is true that you can’t fight effectively without good intel. But you also can’t fight effectively without good comms, logistics, administrative, or medical support either.

    The existing decorations are good enough to recognize the contributions of everyone else. The UAV and cyber communities simply don’t need their own “special” medal – which is apparently precisely the purpose of this new abomination of a decoration.

    Give the guys and gals in the UAV and cyber communities an existing decoration if their contribution rates one. Otherwise we’re simply playing “Animal Farm” where “some are more equal than others”.

  21. RandyB says:


    I can see what you mean, but disagree. There’s more to it. MSMs, Commendation and Achievement Medals are not for combat. These are for non-valorous combat whose participants do kill jihadis, and do save American and allied lives.

    It happens in real time, which is different than the way the recipient of a peacetime medal might theoretically be responsible for the killing of jihadis and the saving of American lives down the line.

    Non-valorous combat is a new thing. It deserves a new medal. It just shouldn’t get a place above the BSM.

  22. NHSparky says:

    Randy B–Bullshit. AAM’s and ARCOM’s can come with “V” devices, just like their Navy/Marine equivalents.

    And to put this award above one which has long been associated with a combat valor award (BSM w “V”) is a way to make the AF pilots sitting thousands of miles from the line of fire feel like special little snowflakes.

    Again, if there were any risk to life/limb besides spilling coffee in their laps, I might see the point. But when I saw a guy who was in the Gulf during DS/DS in 1991 guide a group of people out of an Iraqi minefield and get a Navy Commendation Medal with “V”, you’re going to have a hard time justifying a medal which ranks WELL above that for basically flying a remote control drone.

    Nobody here is saying it isn’t a tough job, that it isn’t highly valued, or that it doesn’t take a large measure of dedication and skill, but to put their effort above those in the mud and blood (literally) is an insult to those who do in fact risk far more.

  23. Hondo says:

    RandyB: amigo, if you’re not in actual danger of being shot at by the enemy, you’re not serving “in combat”. Rather, in such a case you’re supporting combat operations remotely – just like everyone else supporting operations in-theater from locations in CONUS or Europe.

    People serving in an area where active hostilities are ongoing are at personal risk of being injured or killed by enemy action; they are therefore serving in combat. People serving in CONUS, Europe, or (IMO) parts of theater where there are no active hostilities (e.g., Kuwait, Qatar) are not. This is precisely why noncombat decorations like the MSM and DMSM (and for the Army, the AAM) can now be awarded in a combat zone – to recognize noncombat service that is performed within the theater of operations.

    UAV and cyber operators outside of an area of active hostilities are not serving “in combat”. They not at personal risk of being injured or killed by enemy action. They are supporting combat operations remotely. Ergo, the existing noncombat decorations are fully appropriate to recognize their contribution to the overall war effort.

    I can buy a guy or gal serving in Afghanistan (even on a reasonably secure base) getting a combat decoration. To some degree, they’re still at risk of getting killed or injured by the enemy (infiltration, perimeter fire, IDF, “green on blue”, bomb smuggled on base, base getting attacked/overrun, etc . . . ). But someone serving at a base in CONUS or Europe just doesn’t face those same risks.

    IMO, neither do the folks serving in Kuwait or Qatar. Neither of those locations have had much in the way of hostile incidents for over a decade. And yes, I’ve been to both (albeit briefly) as well as both Iraq and Afghanistan for longer periods – so I believe I’m qualified to make that assessment from firsthand observation.

  24. SJ says:

    Hondo: re RandyB: amigo, if you’re not in actual danger of being shot at by the enemy, you’re not serving “in combat”.

    Many of these folks live in Vegas so it might apply. (joke)

  25. Hondo says:

    NHSparky: minor correction – unlike the Navy and Marine Corps, the Army only uses the “V” device with 4 decorations: the BSM, the Air Medal, the JSCM, the ARCOM. It does not use the “V” device with the AAM, DFC, or LOM like the Navy and USMC.

    The AAM can technically be awarded for noncombat service only. Since 2004, however, the AAM can be awarded for noncombat service performed within the boundaries of a combat zone. The same is true for the MSM.

    In the Army, the ARCOM and LOM have both been authorized for either noncombat or combat service since the JFK administration. (The ARCOM was originally for peacetime service only, but that was changed during the JFK administration.) The LOM has always been authorized to be awarded for either combat or noncombat service since its creation.

    The Army also uses the “V” device somewhat differently than does the Navy and USMC. When present on an Army-awarded decoration, the “V” device indicates that the award was given for personal participation in an act of heroism performed during armed combat (para 6-5, AR 600-8-22). The Navy and USMC use the “V” device to show that the award was made for an act involving direct participation in armed combat and incurring the personal risk associated therewith, but not necessarily for a specific act of valor (para 123.2.d, SECNAVINST 1650.1H).

  26. Hondo says:

    SJ: true. But IMO getting shot at because you pissed off the wrong guy or gal while partying on the Vegas “strip” is also non-service-connected/not-in-line-of-duty. (smile)

  27. RandyB says:

    I’ve agreed with most everyone here from the beginning that this shouldn’t be placed as high as a BSM. The difference is the risk of life and limb. And yeah, it doesn’t rate as high as an ARCOM either (sorry but I got confused).

    And I agree that simply being on a base in Afghanistan includes risk that a drone operator doesn’t face. That’s why I said drone mechanics face some risks that the operators don’t — and in some cases serious risks.

    I’m just saying this is a new situation that I accept does call for a new type of medal. I don’t think virtual combat is real combat, but I don’t think it’s the same as ordinary non-combat assignments either. That’s why it’s better if they get something new.

  28. Lucky says:

    Maybe you won’t pick on drone “pilots” but I will. I will make them cry for even trying to justify why they should be called Combat Veterans, because, lets face it, thats where this fuckery is heading. I am quite close to moving somewhere like NZ or Idk even.

  29. A_Proud_Infidel says:

    Like I’ve said before, these “Combat Videogamers” go home and sleep on clean sheets every night, and they’re not under General Order 1A either!

  30. NHSparky says:

    Hondo–point taken. Guess I was trying to oversimplify when it wasn’t necessary. I stand chastised, or something like that.

  31. Hondo says:

    NHSparky: no chastisement intended or made, amigo. It took me a long time to realize that there was a difference in how the services used the “V” device, and many don’t realize those differences exist. Frankly, I never realized just how much difference there was between services regarding their decoration policies and practices until I started looking into the subject some years ago.

    For what it’s worth: the USAF has their differences regarding the “V” device from both the Army and Navy/USMC. Like the Army they don’t use the “V” device on the LOM or DFC. (Their reg is silent on the joint decorations, but I assume they follow DoD policy for use of the “V” device on those.) But unlike the Army and Navy/USMC, they don’t use the “V” device on the Air Medal. They do use it with the BSM, Commendation and (like the Navy and USMC) Achievement medals – as well as on a couple of unit decorations. I believe they’re the only service that uses the “V” device on unit citations.

    While the Army and Navy/USMC use the “V” device consistently (albeit somewhat differently), the USAF doesn’t. On the BSM, per the Air Force award instruction (AFI 36-2803) the “V” device means the BSM was awarded for an act of valor during combat not involving participation in aerial flight. However, for the AF Commendation and Achievement Medals, AFI 36-2803 prescribes that the “V” device is used to recognize “noteworthy accomplishments of Air Force personnel placed in harm’s way during contingency deployment operations” (para A3.8, AFI36-2803) – so on those awards it does not necessarily indicate an award for heroism in combat. On USAF unit decorations, the “V’ device means that the unit was honored for performing “meritorious service or outstanding achievement in a combat area” (para, AFI36-2803).

  32. Outlaw13 says:

    “They (UAV operators) witness the carnage. Manned aircraft pilots don’t do that. They get out of there as soon as possible.”

    As an AH-64 pilot I call bullshit on that…but the USAF obviously doesn’t know about anything that goes on below the coordination altitude.