Although it may seem counterintuitive, surveys show that the military operators of drones (note that C.I.A. operators were not in the survey) suffer post-traumatic stress disorder at higher rates than do soldiers in combat zones. Why? First, instead of going to war with a unit that offers community, cohesion and military support services, drone operators are commuter warriors who go to their battle stations alone, with few support systems.
Second, the operators see in detail the destruction and grisly human toll from their work, whereas a traditional bomber sees little of what happens after dropping a bomb. As Col. Pete Gersten, commander of Unmanned Aerial Systems at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, put it: “A lot of people downplay it, say, ‘You’re 8,000 miles away. What’s the big deal?’ But it’s not really 8,000 miles away, it’s 18 inches away. We’re closer…than we’ve ever been as a service. There’s no detachment. Those employing the system are very involved at a personal level in combat. You hear the AK-47 going off, the intensity of the voice on the radio calling for help. You’re looking at him, 18 inches away from him, trying everything in your capability to get that person out of trouble.”
Third, there is a troubling disconnect for drone operators who kill by day, then go home to their families at night. As one Predator drone pilot described it, “You’re going to war for 12 hours, shooting weapons at targets, directing kills on enemy combatants. And then you get in the car and…within 20 minutes, you’re sitting at the dinner table talking to your kids about their homework.”
Fourth, for those in the Air Force, drone warriors are often seen as second-class citizens in military culture. Operators seldom volunteer for this duty, which is derided as the “chair force.” Over half the current generals in the Air Force were fighter pilots; operating a drone is considered a career-killer.
Finally, because there are too few operators, the working tempo for drone operators has been excruciating. It is 24/7, grinding shift work, with no end in sight, and the sleep deprivation and lack of time off take a toll. As P. W. Singer, author of Wired for War, writes, “We have 5,000 years in one kind of combat, and we don’t really understand all of the stresses of it, so it’s a little bit arrogant to think we would understand the stresses of this new kind of combat after only four or five years.”