A soldier fighting on the ground in Pakistan or Iraq has thousands of miles of disconnect between his life in the states and the daily horrors of war.
A drone pilot based at Creech Air Force base has possibly a 45-minute commute between his home and a small room where he makes decisions that affect whether someone lives or dies. Then he comes back home again.
“After a day of being there and doing that and being intense to the nth degree -- life and death ... then you go home and it’s ‘honey, your truck leaked oil on the driveway,’” says retired drone pilot Lt. Colonel Bruce Black. “To come down off that level of concern to something -- I know that it’s important, but it just didn’t rise to that level, and it was difficult at times.”
Because of the need for such rigidly-enforced psychological boundaries, mental health is a key priority at Creech. Black says that it was the buddy system, at least in part, that kept him and the other drone pilots sane.
“One of our key issues was to make sure the guy that you’re flying with is OK with what’s going on,” says Black.
But work-life balance extremes are only one stressor. Although drone pilots are working from the safety of the base, that doesn’t mean they don’t have a visceral experience of warfare, for long stretches of time, and in vivid focus.
“I could sit on top of a target for hours or even days. For example, Zarqawi. The predators flew on him for 600 hours before we actioned the building he was in,” says Black. “The resolution, depending on how far away we are, is good enough that I can tell how many fingers someone is holding up.”
Lt. Col. Black talks about assisting a soldier in Afghanistan whose Humvee had been shot. “The guy is dying and he’s counting on you and you can hear the stress in his voice. You can hear the fact that one of his buddies has been hit,” says Black.
It was as real as it gets, he says.
“When my relief opened the door on the box, I was shocked – what’s this guy doing in my airplane? Oh right, I’m not airborne. Oh, that’s right I’m not in Afghanistan. It was just shocking.”
Black remembers that day with pride because he was able to get the soldiers the help they needed. But not every experience was a proud one – particularly the first time one of his strikes led to a casualty.
“I was sick. Literally. You have taken a human life. And it’s not taken lightly, and I challenge anybody to say that it is. You’re going to get the fighter pilot bravado when we’re talking in the squadron afterwards, there’s always that. But it will affect you. It will affect you.”