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Pilots and the intelligence analysts who work with drones may not physically be in harm's way but they do face psychological dangers. NPR's Sarah McCammon reports as the U.S. Air Force moves toward more remote warfare, it's increasingly aware of the mental risks.
SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: After high school, Kimi thought she knew what she wanted to do.
KIMI: I wanted to go to art school but that was too expensive, so...
MCCAMMON: So Kimi joined the military. The Air Force won't allow us to use her last name because of the high security work she does. She's now 26 and a staff sergeant stationed at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Va., where she spends hours monitoring video feeds from war zones.
KIMI: Since I want to go to art school for photography, the recruiter told me that this is like working with photography but - (laughter) so it's not.
MCCAMMON: It's really not, not even close. Colonel Jason Brown is the 480th Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance wing commander. He says analysts like her watch events unfold thousands of miles away in some of the most troubled places in the world.
JASON BROWN: They're exposed to the most gruesome things that you can think about could happen on a battlefield. They find mass graves. They've witnessed executions.
MCCAMMON: Brown says it's not uncommon to see civilians being raped or killed by groups like ISIS in almost real time.
BROWN: I mean, that's warfare, clear and simple, right? And it's in HDTV.
MCCAMMON: They can't just look away because they're supporting U.S. troops and their allies on the ground, watching for threats and helping guide aircraft and drone pilots. Lieutenant Colonel Cameron Thurman says observing the horrors of war, even from a distance, carries a heavy burden.
CAMERON THURMAN: Everybody understands that. What was not widely understood is the level of exposure that our wing has to that type of incident. We see it all.
MCCAMMON: Thurman is a medical doctor who oversees a team of physicians and psychologists embedded with the wing here in Virginia. The Air Force made that decision a few years ago in response to the higher rates of occupational stress and suicidal thoughts among airmen doing this work. Thurman says it's not just what they see but the weight of decisions they have to make.
THURMAN: Their job is to decide who on that battlefield gets blown up and who on that battlefield gets protected.
MCCAMMON: Staff Sergeant Kimi remembers one especially tough call a few years ago that prompted her to reach out for support.
KIMI: To this day, I still think about it but it's been a couple of years. And I made the correct decision but knowing that I could have made the wrong one and a lot of people could have died because of a wrong decision, I could not stop thinking about it.
MCCAMMON: Kimi says she'd come off her night shift wired and unable to sleep. That's where psychologists with security clearances like Lieutenant Colonel Alan Ogle can come in.
ALAN OGLE: For these folks, they are going literally from combat to cul-de-sac in a short drive - 10 minutes, 15 minutes' drive home. They've gone from being eyes in, head in the fight to then being involved in all the in-garrison responsibilities that we have where they're a spouse, they're parents.
MCCAMMON: As the U.S. military shifts to more of this kind of warfare, Colonel Brown says it's important to acknowledge the psychological impact of the work.
BROWN: In the 21st century, in the information age, warfighting is no longer a matter of geography. It's a mentality. And these airmen, no doubt, are warfighters. And they have the burden of life and death on their shoulders every day, every time they walk into that facility.
MCCAMMON: A burden that Brown says the Air Force is trying to ease by treating the trauma of remote warfare more like the effects of traditional combat. Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Hampton, Virginia.
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