Image: Airman Magazine. Modified by author.

'I Can’t Feel My Toes': Read Chilling Testimonials from US Drone Pilots

A new RAND study on the mental health of America's drone personnel offers a raw glimpse at the psychological toll of the job.

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May 3 2017, 4:18pm

Image: Airman Magazine. Modified by author.

What's come to be known as the "drone war" is almost always portrayed as soulless, clinical remote killing carried out by machines operating thousands of miles away.

But drone warfare isn't just about machines. There are real humans piloting the drones, just as there are real victims. Hollywood has tried to shine a light on the psychological pressures these drone pilots face; sitting in air-conditioned, lifeless shipping containers in Creech Air Force Base, Nevada. But nothing can compete with real life testimonials.

A study into the stress and dissatisfaction of the US Air Force's remotely piloted aircraft community, conducted by RAND, offers a chilling and humanising glimpse into the world of US Air Force drone pilots. The report concludes that there are indeed several psychological stressors placed upon drone pilots, ranging from the long hours to the general morale of the teams, but it's the anonymous comments from USAF drone pilots that stand out the most.

To wit:

On tasking:

We fly all the friggin time, constantly, never stops.

I'm stressed. I'm the only instructor. I was training a student for eight hours. Then in the last two hours, I was asked more questions than all day. I was so all over the place, my brain was overworked. I was trying not to get too short-tempered with him.

On location (Creech Air Force Base):

"Perfect location for the zombie apocalypse!"

[The worst part is] the drive, the drive, the drive.

A lot has to do with local community and will not support a
growing Air Force base, not willing to accept any sort of drinking.

On facilities and services:

I can't feel my toes, even though I wear warmers [in the
Remotely Piloted Aircraft Operations Center].

It blows my mind that we have eight squadrons that are 24- hours operations, but there is not a single 24-hour service on this base. • They won't let us PT [physical training] test at Nellis, just because we're from Creech.

On support and understanding:

The Air Force public affairs office never lets anyone know the value of what we do.

They want an RPA everywhere, so combatant command [COCOM] wants a drone on something, but doesn't realize the strain.

"How is our mission helping end the war(s)? With every IED [improvised explosive device] emplace we kill, are we any closer to ending the overall conflict? . . . Is there any end in sight?"

On morale:

I get burned out mentally from eight consecutive instruction days.

"Seven out of the ten airmen I've had here are trying or are going to get out or have expressed extreme depression or talked of suicide."

On health and wellbeing:

Can be hard to "off someone" and then go back home and hug the kids. The transition is hard.

Everything is classified, everything that we do you can't talk to your friends, coworkers, and family outside of work.

I know a lot of people that need to talk to someone but won't do it on their own, because they don't want to hurt the rest and people shut down.

(Comments within quotation marks indicate that they were exact quotes pulled from the written responses, says RAND. Comments without quotation marks are paraphrased from RAND focus group discussions.)

That's just a sampling. The RAND study conducted 28 hour-and-a-half focus group sessions with some 180 USAF airmen, assigned to pilot, sensor operator, and intelligence positions.

Several previous studies have already exposed the high rate of 'burnout' and unique stressors drone pilots experience, but these sorts of raw testimonials are still rare in the relatively new era of drones. For remote pilots, they are indicative of a psychologically traumatic style of future warfare.

To learn more about America's drone pilots, watch Motherboard's sit-down with Brandon Bryant, a former drone pilot and sensor operator for the of the US Air Force.