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Can Drone Pilots Be Diagnosed With Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?


America's ongoing military campaigns in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Pakistan rely heavily on drones. The use of drones to kill suspected insurgents could be President Obama's most significant legacy in the fight against terrorism. Drones are properly known as unmanned aerial vehicles, but there's always someone at the controls - pilots who are fighting war by remote control for hours at a time from bases in the U.S. An essay in the latest issue of Foreign Policy Magazine poses the question can drone pilots get PTSD? David Morris wrote that essay. He's the author of a history of PTSD and a former Marine infantryman.

DAVID MORRIS: My first reaction to that question was, you know, sort of like a record screech - like, what? You know, drone pilots can't get PTSD. That's something that infantrymen men get and rape survivors get. But the Air Force did a study and surveyed a thousand drone operators and found that about 4 percent of them reported some sort of detectable posttraumatic stress symptoms, something very similar to what we recognize in soldiers' PTSD.

RATH: You write about how the PTSD label initially came from work with combat veterans and rape survivors, but it's spread much farther than that.

MORRIS: Yeah. Since, you know, now it's applied to burn victims, people who survive auto accidents, people who have near misses in airplanes, people who survive natural disasters. And it's interesting because, you know, PTSD is - the diagnosis itself - is as old as cable television. It was first recognized in 1980, always sort of hinging around this question of did you think you were going to die?

RATH: David, can you talk about your own experience, you know, either serving in combat or even reporting on it as a journalist? Have you had your own experience of how the trauma is different when you experience it directly versus other ways?

MORRIS: Yeah. I served as a war correspondent in Iraq, off and on, for three years and survived a couple of IED ambushes. A couple weeks after I had survived an IED ambush, I was embedded with an infantry unit in Baghdad. It was late one night, and I was in the company operation center, and they noticed that some local Iraqis - they basically caught them red-handed burying some IEDs in the middle of the road. And so they dispatched a patrol to go kill these Iraqis, and we watched the whole ambush go down live on surveillance feed. And so I remember vividly watching this Iraqi lose his leg, basically be dismembered by this automatic rifle fire.

It seemed less - somehow less than real. It seemed - because we were watching it on a screen and it was being recorded, it seemed almost like a form of entertainment, as grisly as that is. You know, I'd seen other people get shot and survived other ambushes. This surveillance feed somehow seemed different. And I've never - and I've had nightmares about other experiences I've had in Iraq, but I've never had nightmares about watching this live surveillance feed and watching this Iraqi be shot.

And among my veteran friends, the idea of drone operators being diagnosed with PTSD can almost seem like an affront to the idea of combat, you know? And it sort of speaks to the degree to which PTSD has become such a symbolic diagnosis, and some Marine friends of mine even jokingly call it, like, a war participation trophy or war participation badge - like, you come back with PTSD.

And so I think there is this sort of weird, convoluted logic of drone operators can't be allowed to be diagnosed with this very serious disorder because the work they do is somehow not the same as what infantrymen and snipers are doing. But I think there is simply not enough research that's been done. I mean, no one's really looked at the actual experience of a drone operator psychologically when they are killing people. Can it be said to resemble something like combat that we've - as we've traditionally defined it?

RATH: Do you think there's a danger, though, in getting hung up on the terminology? Say that if we say to drone pilots, you can't have PTSD, you were not physically threatened, we could ignore other real problems they might face from remotely killing, things like depression or stress disorder, stuff like that. And we could be discouraging these men and women from getting help.

MORRIS: Yeah, and I think that's a good point. You don't want to get hung up on, you know, does this fit into a traditional Jell-O mold of how we've conceived of this particular psychiatric illness. But I think the diagnosis, as we've had it for 35 years now, we haven't really conceived of it as a virtual experience. This debate is slightly academic, in the sense that you - you know, we can talk about, until we're blue in the face, about the definitions of PTSD. But if someone's, you know, presenting these kinds of symptoms, you know, and struggling, then they deserve to have those struggles recognized and treated.

RATH: That's David Morris. He's a former Marine infantry officer, and his most recent book is a history of PTSD called "The Evil Hours." David, thanks very much.

MORRIS: Hey, thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.