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PTSD in UAV Operators

By: Miss Taylor E. Watson, Order of Daedalians Operations Officer

The August Virtual Flight speaker, Capt. Jamal Campbell, USMC, spoke about “psychological threats associated with piloting unmanned systems.” U.S. Air Force Photo/Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt

On Wednesday, Aug. 4, the Daedalians’ Virtual Flight welcomed Capt. Jamal Campbell, USMC, for a presentation on his Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) thesis “Psychological Effects on UAV Operators and Proposed Mitigation Strategies to Combat PTSD.” The discussion took a closer look at “psychological threats associated with piloting unmanned systems.”

In an evolving threat environment with increasing cost constraints, the Department of Defense is pursuing technological innovation to maintain readiness and meet mission objectives. As part of this trend, there is an increasing dependence on unmanned systems across services. While UAV operators and RPA pilots control aircraft out of theater — thus are exposed to fewer physical hazards than airmen flying lethal missions from the cockpit — watching horrific events unfold onscreen for extended periods of time does make them vulnerable to posttraumatic stress disorder.

Through an in-depth literature review and series of case studies, Campbell identified key challenges and proposed mitigation strategies. An increased dependency on RPA operators can translate to higher risk of burnout and negative psychological impacts. Factors such as shift work, staffing shortages and overwhelming workloads combine to make these outcomes likely. Insufficient personnel to maintain a high operations tempo and lack of support from leadership on mental health issues also contribute. Additionally, there is not adequate transitional space from a high-stress, intense mission environment to everyday activity, such as family life.

While mitigating psychological impact on military personnel is a difficult task, establishing intervention protocols to provide support and ease stress can improve the situation. Some strategies proposed in the presentation included:

  • Helping airmen develop effective emotional regulation strategies such as affect labeling.
  • Critical incident stress debriefings after high-stress events to defuse operators’ emotions.
  • Conducting cortisol testing and therapy to identify symptoms and help with effective regulation of feelings and traumatic memories.
  • Post-mission questionnaires and periodic group meetings to provide a neutral space for operators to discuss their experiences and encouraging counseling.
  • Increasing recruitment and adjusting career success indicators to attract a greater number of UAV and RPA personnel.
  • Adjusting basing and shift scheduling approaches to create more transitional space between the on-duty and off-duty environment, easing stress on operators.
  • Ensuring sufficient training to adequately prepare airmen for their mission and avoid striking incorrect targets.

Daedalian Virtual Flight members who attended the event engaged in lively discussion further exploring challenges that lead to the likelihood of developing psychological disorders in young, impressionable UAV operators and RPA pilots. Most agreed lack of a supportive command climate, in addition failures to consider possible psychological after-effects on young men and women in the strategy and planning process were critical issues.

A few attendees were both Daedalian and River Rat members. They proposed the importance of creating opportunities to share stories with young men and women serving in these roles. Mentorship from more experienced members of our organizations can help guide them through the combat experience.

Campbell graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology and commissioned out of the University of Rochester’s NROTC unit in May 2015. He earned his master of science in information technology management in June 2021 from NPS, where he conducted his research on ways to mitigate PTSD in drone pilots. His latest assignment is the Emerging Technology Officer at the Marine Corps University, Quantico, Virginia.