RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Today we're going to learn about an unlikely consequence of modern warfare. The question: Can a pilot suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, without ever getting into a cockpit? The Air Force now says yes. These days some 1,100 Air Force pilots fly drones, remotely piloted aircraft. The drones soar over places like Iraq and Afghanistan, but the pilots control them from military bases back here in the U.S.
A new study shows almost 30 percent of drone pilots surveyed suffer from what the military calls burnout. NPR's Rachel Martin got an advance copy of that report and joins us in our studio to talk about the psychological effects of war by remote control. Good morning.
RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: And now, burnout - that is the military's term. What exactly does it mean?
MARTIN: Well, the Air Force says these pilots feel overworked, stretched too thin and fatigued, what you might associate with burnout. But important to note, the Air Force doesn't consider this to be a dangerous level of stress - but they are concerned about the overall well-being of these folks and their morale level.
But 17 percent of active duty drone pilots surveyed are thought to be, quote, "clinically distressed" - which is much more concerning. This is where the stress level has actually crossed a threshold where it's now affecting the work that these people do and their family life and it's a red flag for the military. And a large majority of these pilots said they're not getting any counseling for their stress level.
MONTAGNE: What is it in particular about operating a drone remotely from back in the States, thousands of miles from the action, that's causing this level of stress and even potential PTSD?
MARTIN: Well a lot of this is about the dual nature of this work. It's very unique. These folks are flying combat operations in a war zone or doing surveillance. And then after they finish their shift, they go home to their families in a place like Nevada or New Mexico and they have to live in that very different dynamic, which comes with different sets of expectations. This can be very stressful, having to switch back and forth from these worlds.
There's also the monotony, Renee. Remember, these pilots are operating planes from computer terminals at Air Force bases in the U.S. Many of these drones are used for surveillance, so they're just watching targets for hours at a time, which is monotonous and adds to the stress.
Also, there has been constant demand for drones and drone pilots in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They cannot train enough pilots to meet demand, so they're working really long shifts, unpredictable work schedules. And remember, these drones are up in the air for 24 hours at a time, so these are round-the-clock shifts.
MONTAGNE: What about the mission itself? I mean what these pilots do, partly at least, is to conduct air strikes. I mean they kill people from afar. Did that come out in this survey?
MARTIN: Yes, officials that conducted the study said they actually encountered a handful of pilots who suffered symptoms of PTSD - post-traumatic stress disorder - directly linked to their experience running combat operations. It's important to point out here, these pilots can be looking at the same piece of ground for days, sometimes months.
So in a way they're closer to the battlefield than regular pilots. I mean they can watch someone's pattern of life, see them with their family, and then they can be ordered to shoot. Colonel Kent McDonald co-authored the report, and here's how he described it.
COLONEL KENT MCDONALD: We try to select people who are well adjusted, and when they have to kill someone or when they're involved in missions where they are observing people over long periods of time and then they - they either kill them or they see them killed, it does cause them to rethink aspects of their life and it can be bothersome.
MARTIN: Bothersome to say the least. I mean nightmares, stress that makes it impossible for them to do their jobs. But again, we should point out the survey shows that this is a very small percentage of the force.
MONTAGNE: And what does the Air Force plan to do about it?
MARTIN: They're going to reevaluate, take the next 12 months and see if they can reconfigure some of these shifts, give shorter rotations, because this is definitely the future. This kind of warfare is not going away, and they're going to need more and more of these kinds of pilots, Renee.
MONTAGNE: That's NPR national security correspondent Rachel Martin. Thanks very much.
MARTIN: You're welcome.
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