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Operating From Afar, Feeling Up Close Release date 30.05.2016
While UAV Operators sit in distant mission stations, the aircraft they operate execute operational missions deep in enemy territory. A new study initiated by the IAF attempted to understand: what are the psychological implications of being a UAV Operator?
Eilon Tohar | Translation: Ofri Aharon
"I grew up on a TV Series called ‘The Time Tunnel'. The characters would enter some kind of tunnel, and emerge in a different century. This is how I feel when entering the station: I'm in the quiet base, I sit down, put the headphones on and land in a completely different world. Everything changes."

Lt. Col. (Res') Omer, who served as a UAV Squadron Commander shared with us. He adds: "You don't have time to think: you immediately enter a war zone, talk to forces in the field, everything is urgent and you feel that you are there, with them, in the field. But the larger rift in my opinion is when you exit the station. Your shift ends, a different team arrives, you open the door and there you are in Palmahim AFB".

Photography: Hagar Amibar

From Gaza to the Squadron Rec-Room
UAV Operators have a unique role that is expected to become even more significant in the near future, as far as technology will allow: while they sit in air-conditioned mission stations with a Joystick and control panel, they remotely operate advanced aircraft that operate deep in the battlefield and take an active part in classified and operational missions. As the unmanned division's operational activity expands over the years, the gap between the safe station from which the operator works, and between enemy territory in which the aircraft operates sharpens. "The common conception is that operating a UAV is like playing a video game. But it's misleading: the operators are completely in the field", clarifies Maj. Shiri Gal, Head of Palmahim AFB's Psychology Department, in which most of the UAV squadrons are positioned, and who led a large scale study about the division's unique mental aspects.

Lt. Tom, an operator in the "Hermes 450" department, adamantly rejects any claims of a videogame-like atmosphere. "As an operator you feel deep in the battlefield", he testifies. "The experience is intense, the responsibility on your shoulders is heavy and you see everything happening in the battlefield, the ‘bad guys' and the ‘good guys' you protect".
Nonetheless, Lt. Tom is familiar with contemplations regarding the distance between the man and the aircraft. He testifies that he hasn't yet experienced serious personal difficulties, but ties this fact to his little operational experience relatively to operators like Lt. Col. (Res') Omer. "The gap is felt between sitting in the mission station where you take part in operational activity, and exiting it, going to the squadron's rec-room and eating out with your squadron members. The sharp transition between both things can be hard for some people, which is why I insist on debriefing and analyzing my actions between shifts".

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"Symptoms of depression weren't found among the sample of operators"
An open discussion about the misgivings and feelings many UAV Operators share hasn't always existed, but in the past few years awareness of the psychological aspects unique to the division has been growing.

As stated, a study of this subject was led by Palmahim AFB's Psychology Department, and was initiated as a result of UAV Operators' desire to share their feelings with someone. Some of the feelings, Maj. Shiri shares, stood out more than others after intensive operational activity. As a result, she held a study that included a few dozen UAV Operators and External Operators from the IAF on a voluntary basis in which she checked the psychological consequences of the nature of their activity. Her intention is to hold a larger and more in-depth survey in the future.

Maj. Gal testifies that in the past few years a trend of openness to the subject has developed, and the commanders encourage an atmosphere in which difficult subjects can be discussed. Overseas, in the U.S, studies performed have already received academic recognition, with psychologists closely accompanying the pilots and UAV operators.

Maj. Gal wishes to increase awareness of the significance of the mental aspect of combat oriented positions. "The bottom line is that there was no evidence of depression or post-trauma among the surveyed operators", she explained. "In certain cases symptoms of stress were reported, but the operators are in the normative range. It is important to remember that in many cases, the distressing feelings and thoughts begin years after the events themselves and not necessarily while they happen".

"During an operation, you are immersed in your mission. Only afterwards, the events slowly come back to you", explained Lt. Col. (Res') Omer. Age, experience, personal situation and family status all have implications on each operator's personal experience and it's psychological aspects", adds Maj. Gal. "The operators in my age group are still young and in a mindset of soldiers in the army executing what they are commanded to", Lt. Tom reinforces her assumptions. "We haven't experienced many wars like the senior operators, we discuss the subject in every workshop and exercise in order to develop awareness to the mental difficulty and we lack the maturity that older, family men have".

As opposed to Lt. Tom, Lt. Col. (Res') Omer has taken part in many campaigns. "The younger you are, the more satisfaction you feel when executing your mission because you feel that you have succeeded in utilizing your training", said Lt. Col. (Res') Omer. "When you're older, all the more when you are a family man, your responsibility to defend uninvolved civilians is reinforced. Alongside the feeling of satisfaction, personal responsibility when working among civilian population comes in".

Photography: Hagar Amibar

From Fighter WSO to UAV Operator
Lt. Col. (Res') Omer was and still is a WSO from the "Scorpion" Squadron, who underwent a conversion course to also become a UAV operator. According to him, while the difficulty in flying a fighter jet is mostly technical and physiological, in the unmanned division the mental aspect is the real challenge. "I often think about the forces in the field and the activity alongside them. They do not have the privilege of exiting the mission station", shares Lt. Col. (Res') Omer.

The connection to the field also has a large part in the psychological complexity Lt. Col. (Res') Omer indicates, and so he compares the experience of flight and the experience of remotely piloting. "Fighter jets are very powerful, they have mighty bombs and advanced abilities but when sitting inside one, you are in a remote position from the field, even if you look at what is happening in the system", describes Lt. Col. (Res') Omer. "When you pilot a UAV you fly differently, receive a more accurate picture of the ground and your communication with the forces on the ground is much tighter. You may not be in the field physically, but you can see all of the results of war in detail, a fact that makes the experience very close".

Mental Debriefing
Lt. Col. (Res') Omer wishes to emphasize that serving in the UAV division is a privilege, despite the mental difficulty he describes. Nonetheless, he doesn't spare us the events that escort him to this day. "In the UAV division, everyone who experiences combat, carries heavy baggage with him", he shares. "The problem is that we don't like saying that we are having difficulties, don't like saying that the events come back to us at night".

As a result of this understanding, Lt. Col. (Res') recalls how he congregated all of the Squadron members he commanded after Operation "Cast Lead" was concluded, in which, according to him, the role of UAV division took a step forward. One after another the operators came up and talked about their feelings in what he calls today as a "Mental Debriefing". "An amazing thing happened: people hungered to talk. We began the event at 7 PM, and had to stop it at 2 AM and schedule another meeting", remembers Lt. Col. (Res') Omer. "It goes to show how much baggage servicemen and women in the combat divisions carry, and they don't unload any of it until you make them share what they experienced".

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Between Gaza and Afghanistan
Academic studies have been held in the United States with the participation of hundreds of UAV operators that participated in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq with the goal of examining all the side effects that may occur as a result of the unique nature of their service. "The data is much more concerning in the United States, which may be explained by the fact that operators here are protecting their home. The IAF's UAVs operate in every theatre while missiles are being fired at their operator's homes, in comparison to the United States that wages war in the Middle East and is not under a direct threat", explained Maj. Gal. "It is also important to remember that we are a small country. They may be remotely operating the UAVs, but Gaza is only a few dozen km away, as opposed to American UAV Operators that operate in a far continent across the ocean from them. There is a greater feeling of involvement in the battlefield, an involvement that blurs the distance between the station and the mission".

Lt. Tom agrees: "The Americans conduct missions in places far from home, that don't have an immediate effect on the safety of their home. Here, the terrorist squad facing the force you escort might fire a mortar on your brother in the field, or a rocket on you parents".

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