Airmen who operate Predator drones over Iraq via remote control, launching deadly missile attacks from the safety of ground stations in Southern Nevada and California more than 7,000 miles away, are suffering 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 get to drive 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.
"When you come in (with a fighter jet) at 500 to 600 mph, drop a 500-pound bomb and then fly away, you don't see what happens," said Col. Albert Aimar, who is commander of the 163rd Reconnaissance Wing at March Air Reserve Base, Calif., and has a bachelor's degree in psychology.
"Now 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.
Often, the military directs Predators to linger over a target after an attack so that 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 432nd Wing at Creech Air Force Base at Indian Springs, 45 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
"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," he said.
Creech Air Force Base is the hub of the nation's Predator and Reaper operations. Roughly 100 remotely piloted MQ-1 Predators, which can be armed with laser-guided Hellfire missiles, and a half-dozen MQ-9 Reapers -- the Predator's big brother, which can drop bombs and fire missiles -- are assigned to Creech.
In addition to conducting combat surveillance and attack missions worldwide, Creech airmen train pilots, sensor operators and other unmanned aircraft crew members.
Chambliss said his experience flying F-16 fighter jets on bombing runs in Iraq during the 1990s prepared him for his job as a Predator pilot. But he and other wing leaders said they're concerned about the sensor operators, who sit next to pilots in the ground control station. Often, the sensor operators are on their first assignment and just 18 or 19 years old, officers said.
While the pilot fires the missile, the sensor operator uses laser instruments to guide it to its target.
On four or five occasions, sensor operators have sought out a chaplain or supervisor, Chambliss said. He emphasized that the number of such cases is small compared with the number of people involved in Predator operations.
Aimar said the stresses are "causing some family issues, some relationship issues." He and other Predator officers would not elaborate.
But 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, Aimar said. Similarly, chaplains have been called in at Predator bases in Texas, Arizona and Nevada.
In interviews with some of the dozens of pilots and sensor operators at the various bases, none said they had been particularly troubled by the mission but acknowledged it comes with unique challenges and sometimes makes for a strange existence.
"It is quite different, going from potentially shooting a missile, then going to your kid's soccer game," said Lt. Col. Michael Lenahan, a Predator pilot and operations director for the 196th Reconnaissance Squadron at March.
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. While the resolution is generally not high enough to make out faces, it is sharp, commanders say.
Col. Rodney Horn, vice commander of the 147th Reconnaissance Wing at Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base near Houston, said his unit impresses upon sensor operators the sometimes lethal nature of the job. "No one's walking into it blind," he said.
Unlike troops living together in the war zone, Predator operators don't have the camaraderie that allows buddies to talk about the day and blow off steam. But many Predator operators at Creech use a decompression ritual during the long ride home, said Air Force Lt. Col. Robert P. Herz.
"A lot of them have told me, 'I'm glad I've got the hour drive.' It gives them that whole amount of time to leave it behind," said Herz, a Ph.D. who interviewed pilots and sensor operators for a doctoral dissertation on human error in Predator accidents. "They get in their bus or car and they go into a zone -- they say, 'For the next hour I'm decompressing, I'm getting re-engaged into what it's like to be a civilian.'"
Review-Journal writer Keith Rogers contributed to this report.