In a remarkable twist in the debate over whether military Drone Pilots should be awarded medals equivalent to the Medal of Honor, a new study has found that Drone Pilots experience equivalent rates of post traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues to pilots physically in war zones. From the Mind Matters blog over at Big Think:

In fact the epidemiologist Jean Lin Otto, an author of the study, expected the operators (pilots and camera operators of what they prefer to call, more correctly, remotely piloted aircraft) to be more troubled than fliers whose bodies are actually within the borders of Iraq or Afghanistan.

One reason: the technology of surveillance changes the psychology of the fight, making it harder for soldiers to find a way to separate the image of “the enemy” from the image of “people like me.”

As one (non-drone) veteran recently pointed out to me, operators sometimes track their kills for days or weeks. They watch them buy food for dinner. They watch them play with their kids. Despite their physical distance from the action, they're psychologically much closer than pilots in non-robot craft, or even soldiers firing at adversaries they don't know.

A second contrast is that in-theater pilots, though far from family and civilian friends, have the company of their warfighting brothers and sisters.

This compartmentalization, separating war-life and home-life, could be seen as a way to protect society from the violent skills it has cultivated in its fighters. But there is evidence that it also protected fighters from the anguish of judging their military acts with the eyes of civilians.

A lot of people probably have images in their heads of drone pilots wearing slacks, munching chips and playing a more realistic version of halo, but there is obviously more to the story. And there is more to war than just physical health, something we are only just beginning to become aware of as a society. Something we are coming to realise as more and more Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans return home physically whole, but with psychological scars. Just the idea that drone pilots have to track their kills for so long is enough to convince me they deserve an equivalent reward, if not the same as everyone else.