I just got home from a two-month wartime deployment with the Air National Guard and, despite the fact the mission took us through the skies of Iraq and Afghanistan, my wife hardly noticed I was gone. No, it’s not because I’m that useless when I am home or because she’s that inattentive. It’s because I hardly was gone at all.
I was deployed about 90 minutes north of my home where I joined an active duty mission at Beale Air Force Base that interprets intelligence video coming from unmanned aerial vehicles. We communicate with servicemembers involved in live firefights and other critical missions. While we aren’t pushing the buttons that deliver hellfire missiles, we are the ones who target the bad guys. These airmen are the 9-1-1 operators of the war.
To get some sense of the mission, check out the declassified YouTube videos for some good examples of our daily missions at http://tinyurl.com/dronekills. After you’ve seen the video, you’ll be closer to understanding the stress of these long-distance missions.
After four days of 12-hour shifts in a room about the size of a gymnasium, watching a ton of images on dozens of flat screens, airmen go home to something as innocuous as their son’s soccer game. They can’t talk about what they’ve done or what they’ve seen nor can I give more specifics than what I’ve already shared. Suffice to say these men and women regularly are involved in missions where lives are taken and lost.
As a chaplain, I wandered through the workstations of these young people and I wondered. I wondered about the challenges of war by remote control on the edge of this virtual frontier. I wondered about their mission to cross boundaries of ambiguity where people bleed long before we are able to see the whites of their eyes. And although I never wonder about their dedication and professionalism, I sometimes wonder how they do this mission in such isolation.
Military mental health experts identify the hazard of this kind of isolation as “the silo effect.” The term refers to this bizarre disconnect airman sometimes feel between what they are doing and what actually happens a half world away.
I return this month for another two-month deployment, but during my leave last month, I noticed these airmen aren’t the only ones who experience the silo effect.
When it comes to the war, many of you also are in isolation. Like the airmen, your information comes to you exclusively by video or in text, but the big difference is that your information comes to you from nightly news anchors or reporters.
On one hand, you are fortunate your country does not require you to make the remote decisions these airmen make that cost lives. But on the other hand, you can become very isolated and immune from its effects. The problem is we say America is at war with terrorism, but in reality, few Americans are sacrificing anything to be at war. Our idea of remote warfare is to battle our teenager for the TV remote.
I know you can’t go to the frontlines of Afghanistan, but I do think there are ways the average American can be involved. Perhaps you can send care packages to the troops, write your congressmen, volunteer at a veteran’s cemetery, read an in-depth book on the war, or perhaps even visit your local base to find out what they are doing in the war.
All I’m saying is that, whatever you do, don’t be remote.