- The Washington Times - Monday, August 11, 2008

MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, Calif. (AP) | The Air National Guardsmen who operate Predator drones over Iraq via remote control, launching deadly missile attacks from the safety of Southern California 7,000 miles away, are experiencing some of the same psychological stresses as their comrades on the battlefield.

Working in air-conditioned trailers, Predator pilots observe the field of battle through a bank of video screens and kill enemy fighters with a few computer keystrokes. Then, after their shifts are over, they go home and sleep in their own beds.

But that whiplash transition is taking a toll on some of them mentally, and so is the way the unmanned aircraft’s cameras enable them to see people getting killed in high-resolution detail, some officers say.

In a fighter jet, “when you come in at 500-600 miles per hour, drop a 500-pound bomb and then fly away, you don’t see what happens,” said Col. Albert K. Aimar, who is commander of the 163rd Reconnaissance Wing and has a bachelor’s degree in psychology. But when a Predator fires a missile, “you watch it all the way to impact, and I mean it’s very vivid, it’s right there and personal. So it does stay in people’s minds for a long time.”

He said the stresses are “causing some family issues, some relationship issues.” He and other Predator officers would not elaborate.

The 163rd has called in a full-time chaplain and enlisted the services of psychologists and psychiatrists to help ease the mental strain on these remote-control warriors, Col. Aimar said. Chaplains also have been brought in at Predator bases in Texas, Arizona and Nevada.

In interviews with five of the dozens of pilots and sensor operators at the various bases, none said that they had been particularly troubled by their mission, but they acknowledged that it comes with unique challenges, and sometimes makes for a strange existence.

“It’s bizarre, I guess,” said Lt. Col. Michael Lenahan, a Predator pilot and operations director for the 196th Reconnaissance Squadron. “It is quite different, going from potentially shooting a missile, then going to your kid’s soccer game.”

Among the stresses cited by the operators and their commanders: the exhaustion that comes with the shift work of this 24/7 assignment; the classified nature of the job that demands silence at the breakfast table; and the images transmitted via video.

A Predator’s cameras are powerful enough to allow an operator to distinguish between a man and a woman, and between different weapons on the ground. Although the resolution is generally not high enough to make out faces, it is sharp, commanders say.

Often, the military directs Predators to linger over a target after an attack so the damage can be assessed.

“You do stick around and see the aftermath of what you did, and that does personalize the fight,” said Col. Chris Chambliss, commander of the active-duty 432nd Wing at Creech Air Force Base, Nev. “You have a pretty good optical picture of the individuals on the ground. The images can be pretty graphic, pretty vivid, and those are the things we try to offset. We know that some folks have, in some cases, problems.”

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