PTSD: The Drone Pilot Version: Background information when reading And West Is West

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And West Is West

by Ron Childress

And West Is West by Ron Childress X
And West Is West by Ron Childress
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2015, 320 pages
    Jul 2016, 336 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
James Broderick
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PTSD: The Drone Pilot Version

This article relates to And West Is West

Print Review

Societal awareness of PTSD – post-traumatic stress disorder – has certainly increased over the past several years. What was once a term familiar mostly to combat veterans and survivors of abuse, and their therapists, is now much more widely recognized. For most people outside the military and medical communities, the term probably calls to mind a chaotic, frightening image of combat: military patrols amid firefights and ambushes, soldiers dodging sniper fire, and roaring artillery shells maiming soldiers and civilians.

But as war has changed so too have some of the casualties of war-related stress. With a huge uptick in militarized drone strikes over the past several years, the U.S. military is now facing a problem in the loss of drone operators due to job-related causes, a situation at the heart of Ron Childress' novel, And West is West.

Drone pilot in action While these drone pilots might not conform to the standard picture of pilots in the cockpit tearing through the skies, in some ways their experience — often operating thousands of miles away from the site of the target — can be even more stressful. A drone pilot — usually seated before a video display at a command console — will stare at a potential target area for hours, days, even weeks, familiarizing himself or herself with the daily activities — and even clothing — of their surveillance targets, noting any movement and feeding intelligence data into a network of computers. The monotony and intensity of the work is supplanted by occasional frenzied moments when a strike is authorized, and the pilot not only presses the button that leads to missile fire but has a front-row seat to the destruction. Drone pilots – unlike their airborne counterparts – often see the exact result of their work, the human carnage and rubble caused by their actions.

This combination of monotony and the intensity of the experience has led to a worrisome exodus of hundreds of drone pilots, a situation the military is actively seeking to address through new recruitment and training programs.

The narrator of And West is West, speaking of young Air Force drone pilot Jessica Aldridge, explains: "One might imagine there is no battlefield stress an ocean away from the front, but this is the problem: lack of physical danger in operations that take lives – even enemy lives – never feels quite right. Jessica knows how the silent guilt builds. You learn to deal with it or crack."

According to a June 2015 New York Times article, a 2013 study conducted by the U.S. Department of Defense revealed that drone pilots suffered from the same instance of job-related problems (such as depression and PTSD) as pilots who were deployed in combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. An inability to properly decompress is a concern to some military officials.

The same article quoted Col. James Cluff, the commander of the Air Force's 432nd Wing, which runs drone operations from a desert outpost about 45 miles northwest of Las Vegas: "Having our folks make that mental shift every day, driving into the gate and thinking, 'All right, I've got my war face on, and I'm going to the fight,' and then driving out of the gate and stopping at Walmart to pick up a carton of milk or going to the soccer game on the way home — and the fact that you can't talk about most of what you do at home — all those stressors together are what is putting pressure on the family, putting pressure on the airman."

And earlier in 2015, after a visit to Whiteman Air Force base in Missouri, U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill wrote to the Air Force Chief of Staff, expressing her concerns over the growing problem, noting that a drone pilot "could be sitting down to a meal with his or her family less than two hours after killing Islamic State or Taliban fighters…they could be playing with their children shortly after witnessing up close and in graphic detail the effects of a 500-pound bomb or Hellfire missile on a soft target." McCaskill said troops in a war zone could have more resources to help them decompress after the stress of battle than drone operators. "While at Whiteman, I heard that some RPA pilots prefer to work a shift that finishes in the middle of the night because it gives them the opportunity to relax and decompress with their fellow airmen without feeling pressure to get home for dinner with their spouse and children," she wrote.

Picture of drone pilot in action from DIY Drones

Filed under Medicine, Science and Tech

Article by James Broderick

This "beyond the book article" relates to And West Is West. It originally ran in November 2015 and has been updated for the July 2016 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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