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Langley Air Force Base, Virginia -
The gritty combat in Afghanistan is far away.
But the analysts at Langley Air Force Base in the US 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 toll on their lives.
The military has begun to grapple with the mental and emotional strains endured by personnel who may never come face to face with a Taliban insurgent, never dodge a roadside bomb or take fire, but who nevertheless may be responsible for taking human lives or putting their colleagues in mortal danger.
Now, for the first time, an Air Force chaplain and a psychologist are walking the floor of the operations centre at Langley, offering counselling and stress relief to the airmen who scrutinise the war from afar.
The military is slowly recognising that the troops who battle the war from afar can be just as affected psychologically by war as those on the front lines. The most recent public acknowledgement of the issue came last month, when the Pentagon announced a new medal for remote warfare personnel.
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.
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 them.
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 repeated exposure to destruction and warfare. They see it, rewind it, see it, rewind it,” said Capt. Robert Duplease, the chaplain assigned to the 497th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Group.
The analysts aren't the ones being shot at, 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 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.
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.”
The idea to put a chaplain inside the centre 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 behavioural issues were increasing. In surveys, airmen also suggested there was a need for a chaplain.
Duplease, who said he also attended mission briefings, said people slowly 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 counselling 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 counselling 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.” - Sapa-AP