They may never come face to face with a Taliban insurgent, never dodge a roadside bomb or take fire, but they still may be responsible for taking lives or putting their own colleagues in mortal danger. And now the military has begun to grapple with the mental and emotional strains endured by these Air Force personnel.
While they are thousands of miles from the gritty combat in Afghanistan, the analysts in the cavernous room at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia relive the explosions, the carnage and the vivid after-battle assessments of the bombings over and over again. The repeated exposure to death and destruction rolling across their computer screens is taking its own special toll on their lives.
Now, for the first time, an Air Force chaplain and a psychologist are walking the floor of the operations center at Langley, offering counseling and stress relief to the airmen who scrutinize the war from afar.
Sitting at computer banks lining the expansive room, the Air Force analysts watch the video feeds streaming from surveillance drones and other military assets monitoring U.S. forces around the globe. Photos, radar data, full-motion video and electronically gathered intelligence flows across multiple screens. In 15- to 20-minute shifts, the airmen watch and interpret the information.
Through chat windows, they exchange data, update intelligence reports and talk in real time with commanders on the ground, including troops whose lives may depend on the constant and rapid flow of information they get from Langley.
For example, they may provide information that allows a commander to order an airstrike, but after the weapon is launched, the analysts might suddenly see that the insurgents are fleeing or that civilians or children are moving into the strike zone, and by then they are helpless to do anything about it.
"If you have a 21-year-old playing a video game, when the game is over they start again. Here, if they miss a bad guy, that's what they carry with them," said Air Force Maj. Shauna Sperry, a psychologist who has just begun working with the air wing.
They also often have to go over video of an incident repeatedly to assess the battle damage.
"It's not a video game, it's real," said Capt. Robert Duplease, the chaplain assigned to the 497th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Group. "It's repeated exposure to destruction and warfare. They see it, rewind it, see it, rewind it."
The analysts who provide this information to ground troops are stationed at six Air Force bases around the world, including South Korea, Germany and four U.S. bases. The wing at Langley number 1,200 airmen, both male and female, enlisted personnel and officers, but most around 19 to 21 years old.
The reality is spelled out in the list of daily mission assignments displayed on a multicolored chart cluttered with boxes, letters and numbers: where the missions are, what type of aircraft or sensors are being used, and which team of airmen is assigned to monitor each one. Two to seven analysts make up the teams that work at each workstation.
"Here at Langley, there's nothing coming over the wall at us. That's a fact. No one with an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) is shooting at us, no mortars are coming in," Duplease said. "But they'll see something in a video feed that maybe they can't do anything to prevent. They have no power to intervene, but they have the repeated visual exposure to these things. They're constantly immersed in carnage, but it's not a video game. It's real."
According to Duplease, the analysts may also have to cope with feelings of helplessness, frustration and regret watching an operation on the ground and see something happen — or see someone injured hurt or killed — and they couldn't do anything to prevent it.
The airmen at Langley can't talk publicly about the details of their work because it's classified.
"The stuff they're watching is crazier than the news cycle," Duplease said. "Life outside of here goes on, but life behind the veil is totally different and adjustments have to be made. Sometimes they have trouble with those adjustments."
In fact, Sperry and Duplease suggested that not being on the front lines may actually contribute to the stress.
"They are electronically in the fight in the deployed area every minute," Sperry said. "They make life and death decisions every day, then they go home and have to play mom or dad ... Sometimes things can be depressing for them."
Troops fighting in Afghanistan, for example, only have to focus on the combat jobs they are doing, Duplease said. The airmen, on the other hand, spend 12 hours immersed in the fight, then go home to what are supposed to be normal lives. But they often can't talk about what they did or saw all day because the operations are classified.
There is a slowly emerging recognition within the military that those combined pressures affect the troops who battle the war from afar in some of the same ways that strain forces on the front lines. The most recent public acknowledgement of the issue came recently when the Pentagon created a new medal for remote warfare personnel. But that has caused some resentment among traditional warriors because it is ranked above the Purple Heart or Bronze Star.
The idea to put a chaplain inside the center came from unit commander Col. Mike Shortsleeve and other leaders who noticed that some members of the wing were having problems sleeping and that smoking, alcohol and behavioral issues were increasing. In surveys, airmen also suggested there was a need for having a chaplain in the unit.
According to Duplease and Sperry, moving around the operations center during each day's 12-hour shifts helps get the troops more comfortable with their presence and encourage them to reach out for help. Duplease, who said he also attended mission briefings, said slowly people began to approach him and after about two months, the interactions really began to pick up.
Many of the analysts are as young as 21, and may not yet have developed the ability to deal with the stress. And they worry that revealing their problems could prompt commanders to take away their security clearances or hurt their promotion opportunities.
In response, Duplease and Sperry created sleep classes and counseling sessions, and they have scheduled retreats for married couples and singles to help instill relationship and coping skills. They also are assuring the airmen that to date no one there has lost his or her security clearance as a result of seeking any counseling or assistance.
The success of the Langley program has prompted the Air Force to look at ways to replicate it at other locations around the country.
"We are trying to be proactive rather than reactive," said Duplease. "We want to get ahead of things before become major issues."
Lolita C. Baldor can followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/lbaldor