Military Drone Operators Suffer a Heavy Mental Toll

'New York Times' explores the effects on them
By Mike L. Ford,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 30, 2022 1:30 PM CDT
Burdens of Combat Are Real for These 'Office Workers'
This 2012 photo provided by the Defense Department shows a student pilot and another person controlling a military drone during a training mission from Hancock Field Air National Guard Base.   (AP Photo/TSgt Ricky Best, Defense Department)

(Newser) – Kevin Larson was a churchgoing Eagle Scout and honors student with dreams of becoming a fighter pilot. He received his officer’s commission in 2012, but by then, the Air Force didn’t need airplane pilots, it needed drone pilots. Larson was disappointed, according to a story in the New York Times by Dave Philipps, but he settled in and did his job, completing some 650 combat missions and launching 188 deadly airstrikes from 2013 to 2018. All the details of Larson’s missions are classified, and because drone pilots aren’t considered combat troops, he did not receive the psychiatric resources, recovery periods, and other benefits offered to deployed troops. Instead, per the Times, he was treated as an ordinary office worker.

What started as a “tightly controlled operation” in the wake of 9/11 has steadily expanded, especially after the Obama and Trump administrations loosened the rules of engagement. Times investigations show that “over time, the rules meant to protect civilians broke down … and the number of innocent people killed in America’s air wars grew to be far larger than the Pentagon would publicly admit," writes Philipps. The USAF is working to provide more support for drone crews now, but for many—including Larson—it’s too late. After a breakdown and a bust for psychedelic drugs, which he used for self-medication, Larson was convicted in military court on multiple charges. Fearing a jail sentence, he fled into the wilderness, and—with police drones searching overhead—he shot himself. Per the Times, on Larson’s military file under “Combat Service" is the word "none." (Read the full story.)

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