After working the night shift as a newly arrived remotely piloted aircraft pilot at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, Maj. Jeremy slept on a mattress that snugly fit in his closet. He resorted to the unusual sleeping arrangement to get the rest he needed during the day as his three children played freely in the house.
At night, once the children were in bed, Maj. Jeremy gave his wife, Nikki, a kiss before he began his 35-minute commute from their north Las Vegas home to his midnight shift at Creech AFB, where he still pilots an armed remotely piloted aircraft 7,000 miles away in Afghanistan.
Unlike deployed manned aircraft pilots, Maj. Jeremy returns home after each shift fighting the war. However, he describes himself as feeling like “a ghost in the morning,” because he had to spend so much of his time catching up on his sleep while the rest of the family members went about their daily business.
Some of the most heart-wrenching moments involved missing his children’s activities, such as his oldest son’s Little League baseball games and then 4-year-old daughter’s first dance recital.
“Leaving home to go to a war zone is a mindset,” the former C-5 Galaxy pilot said. “It’s a huge emotional roller coaster, leaving the stressors of my family behind and inheriting new stressors on the way to work. It was a huge mindset change, and I had to have that capability to be able to wear different hats, being Dad and going in and fighting the war.”
Most of the 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing “Hunter” Airmen use their commutes to prepare their minds to be in a wartime mindset at work, said Col. Jim Cluff, the 432nd AEW commander.
“I ask them every time they come through that gate to have a deployed mindset and a warfighter mentality,” Cluff said. “But then I want them to undeploy every day and every night when they drive home. It puts a lot of stressors on our Airmen when you ask them to do that every day.”
“Leaving home to go to a war zone is a mindset”
Each shift is like a police stakeout from thousands of feet away. The pilot flies the RPA while working with his sensor operator and intelligence analyst to look for patterns of life and day-to-day interactions on the ground. The crews provide around-the-clock intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support to troops on the ground. In addition, the RPAs often search for high-value terrorist targets and sometimes launch missile strikes.
“All of those (missile strike) decisions are made away from Creech AFB and Cannon (Air Force Base, New Mexico) in the theater, as they should be,” Cluff said. “But in the end, we all have a vote, as well. My Airmen have a vote because they’re the ones pulling the trigger and guiding the weapon. If they’re not comfortable with the shot, they won’t take it.
(RPA crewmembers) are professional Airmen, they are professional aviators, and that profession brings responsibility. That responsibility is if I’m going to take a life today, I’m going to take a life knowing that it’s the right thing to do.”
In addition to conducting missile strikes, RPAs are also used to gather intelligence. That information is then collected, processed, exploited, analyzed and disseminated through the Air Force Distributed Common Ground System. The DCGS, which consists of 27 geographically separated network sites, produces intelligence information from data collected by sensors on the MQ-1 Predator, MQ-9 Reaper, RQ-4 Global Hawk and other intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms. The 480th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, executes worldwide DCGS operations.
RPA pilots can fly up to almost four times the average of 300 hours flown by manned aircraft pilots. While most people connect RPAs with protecting troops and hunting terrorist targets, they can also save lives, as the RQ-4 Global Hawk and RQ-1 Predator did in damage assessments and assisting aide convoys after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010. They also continue to deal with myths about the job. They particularly dislike the word “drone,” because they feel it carries a connotation of an aircraft potentially delivering a strike without human decision-making.
“Every Predator can fly for almost 24 hours,” Cluff said. “That is a lot of video to look at, and it takes a lot of people to do that. So it’s a manpower intensive operation we are involved in.
“We fly airplanes from here around the world 7,000 miles away, and there’s always a man or woman in the loop. That loop just happens to be 7,000 miles wide, and there is always somebody involved in the decision-making.
Another myth many people have about RPA pilots is that they are nothing more than glorified video game players, said Maj. Bishane, an RPA pilot who volunteered for RPA duty.
“What I tell people is ‘Yes, if you play video games, there are certain skill sets that may translate,’” Maj. Bishane said. “‘However, the individual you’re watching is a real person, and perhaps the family, and it starts to sink in that this is a real-life thing happening, and you have to manage your emotions appropriately. Because if a ground commander decides you need to pull the trigger and execute the strike, this is an individual that perhaps you’ve been watching for a long time, and you start to learn about them in some respects. Now you have to execute that strike and you may see the aftermath, in terms of a funeral or something like that. Yes, you’re looking at them through a screen, so you’re not necessarily right there. However, you start talking about how much you’re watching the target, and it becomes a more intimate ballet with you and that target.’”
RPA pilots obviously don’t face the same immediate physical risks their counterparts in manned aircraft experience directly over their targets. However, combat, whether from directly over the enemy or from a world away, still delivers an emotional toll. A 2011 study at the School of Aerospace Medicine at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, found that almost half of RPA pilots experience high operational stress severe enough to disrupt their personal lives.
“There is a safety net physically, but emotionally we have to put up with a lot,” Maj. Jeremy said. “We have so many different roles to play, switches to flip and different hats to wear that the emotional and mental toughness you need to do it is sometimes as dangerous as the physical aspect of being in the war.”
“There is a safety net physically, but emotionally we have to put up with a lot”
Chaplain (Capt.) Zac does his part each day to help take care of the wing’s Hunter family during visits with the 432nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron Reaper weapons expediters, followed by chit-chats with maintainers in an RPA hangar.
“Take it easy,” he tells them as he says goodbye with a handshake. “Holler if you need anything.”
The chaplain is part of a unique human performance team that combines chaplaincy staff with a psychologist, a physiologist and a physician that are available 24/7 to provide counseling and guidance.
“There needs to be a daily presence,” Chaplain Zac said. “Sometimes I can look in someone’s eyes and say, ‘Airman, you don’t look like you did yesterday.’ But that means I or the chaplain’s assistant were there yesterday. That daily contact gives us the ability to notice those things and intervene before it’s too late.”
Post-traumatic stress amounts to a small percentage of what the human performance team sees in RPA crewmembers. More often, they see combat stress and relationship issues, he said.
“We’re in combat. As a result, we are deployed in place, and that brings certain stresses and difficulties in people’s lives,” he said. “Most of the things we deal with are relationship oriented, but that’s a part of being away from your family so much and being in a difficult environment.
“We have to have relationships, and the only way we can have relationships is through access. So we have to have the same clearances other people have. We have to be able to walk where they walk and work where they work,” Chaplain Zac said. In doing that, we build relationships, which allows us to have proactive care rather than reactive care. We don’t just want to put people back together. We want to prevent people from breaking in the first place.”
One of the ways Maj. Jeremy stays strong is by remembering conversations with some of the service members RPAs protected when he was deployed . That’s how he and his fellow RPA crewmembers know the importance of the job they’re doing on this small base in the Nevada desert.
Fortunately, Maj. Jeremy no longer sleeps in his closet. He now works a day shift so he can make his son’s baseball games and other family activities. Still, there are days when he wonders if he can continue to successfully balance his family responsibilities with the demands of a continuous wartime mission. However, there are always those days that reinforce the importance of the RPA mission.
“Some days, you go to work and think this is awesome,” he said. “Other days, you feel really burned out and think, ‘Do I really want to do this for another 10 to 12 years? But then I hear from some of the guys we support and leave work in a completely different mood than when I went in.”