Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

For America's Drone Warriors, Help to Deal with Mental and Physical Tolls

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

For America's Drone Warriors, Help to Deal with Mental and Physical Tolls

Article excerpt

At the top-secret operations center here, Predator and Reaper drones scanning the skies of the Middle East stream back the data equivalent of two entire Library of Congress collections per day.

It is the responsibility of thousands of college-age analysts here to pore over the intelligence, fulfilling the orders of "client" commanders who may have questions about everything from the daily habits of Islamic State soldiers to the results of bombing campaigns.

For the past decade, these US Air Force analysts have been on "surge" footing, working shifts that can extend as long as 14 hours, day after day.

These hours have taken their toll on the force, say commanders. Watching Islamic State brutalities unfold in high definition has potential repercussions. Even the sugary energy drinks that the analysts slug can take a physical toll.

And so for the past year, commanders here have been trying to figure out ways to mitigate the intense strains and pressures on those who are handling crucial intelligence streams for America's military campaigns abroad.

They have brought in chaplains, physicians, and mental health professionals, screening them for top-secret security clearances. That way, the analysts can discuss in detail what they've seen in the drone video footage, should they choose to, without having to worry about compromising security.

"Anybody that's involved with observing an atrocity - we're concerned. That's not what we'd want anybody to be seeing on a daily basis," says Col. Timothy Haugh, who commands the 480th Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) Wing.

The wing is now making sure that all its analysts go through a debriefing after particularly difficult shifts. "For anybody that sees and observes something that would be considered an atrocity, we all take something different away from that. That's one of the things we've learned."

"We can see the digging of the mass graves. Our job here is to put the pieces together to let [commanders] know they're digging a mass grave," says Senior Airman Kayla, who wears a strip of packing tape over her name badge. (The airmen here are permitted to identify themselves only by rank and first name. …

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