Drone Pilots Can Suffer From PTSD, Too

Drone Pilots Can Suffer From PTSD, Too

Over the last few decades, warfare has changed dramatically. Thanks to technology and telecommunications capabilities, America’s Veterans don’t always fight in person or on the front lines. 

Indeed, MQ-9 Reaper and MQ-1 Predator drone operators are some of the deadliest individuals on the battlefield, even though they operate drones remotely. This means they are never in physical danger. Drone pilots provide important combat assistance to fellow servicemembers and play integral roles in military activities.

Despite this, drone pilots often have a negative stigma attached to them, frequently from others in the military. They may develop PTSD, only to find that their symptoms are ignored since they were not on the frontlines of combat actions. These attitudes can be highly damaging and lead those Veterans not to seek the vital assistance they are entitled to.

If you or a loved one were a drone pilot in the United States Air Force are suffering from PTSD, you or they may be entitled to disability benefits from the VA. Read on for more information.

What Are Unmanned Combat Vehicles and Drones?

Uncrewed combat aerial vehicles, or drones, are sometimes used for surveillance missions but are often used to target and kill our enemies. Drone operators can commute daily to work, operating weaponized aircraft using joysticks and monitoring missions via satellite video feeds. 

Many drone operators feel personally responsible for the deaths caused by these drone attacks. Nearly 50 percent of drone pilots report “high operational stress,” and 4% suffer from PTSD.

Drone pilots, and their mental health issues, have become more common in recent conflicts, especially in the US Air Force (USAF). 

Uncrewed aerial vehicles and military personnel have played important roles in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other conflicts. These active duty aircrews have led to a new means of drone warfare using UAVs, helping to spot IEDs and other air strikes that might harm our armed forces.

But these Air Force drone operators can experience burnout, moral injury, and more. These issues can come from combat exposure, like other airmen or soldiers. Therefore, we must take their mental disorders and psychological distress seriously.

Many war Veterans scoff at the idea of someone who works out of an office in Arizona or Nevada experiencing PTSD. What they may not realize is that drone operators can be indirectly responsible for the deaths of more than 1,500 people – far more than most traditional combat service members. 

Often, drone operators make after-action reports, requiring them to watch the aftermaths of drone bombings. While they may be watching images on a screen instead of being in the midst of the real thing, this distance does little to dampen the emotional blow of seeing people ripped apart and killed by drone strikes.

Indeed, military operations with remotely piloted aircraft require sensor operators and other personnel to watch the action on high-definition screens. It’s no surprise they experience the symptoms of PTSD.

What Is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition characterized by symptoms like insomnia, mood swings, hypervigilance, and flashbacks to a traumatic event.

One or more traumatic stressors normally cause or aggravate PTSD. For military Veterans, traumatic stressors can include time spent in combat, being seriously injured, or witnessing a person injured or killed in battle like a fellow service member. Because of their jobs, Veterans are exposed to many more potentially traumatic stressors than civilians.

This has led many Veterans to develop PTSD and its associated symptoms. Fortunately, the VA considers PTSD a legitimate medical condition and provides benefits to Veterans who can prove they have a service connection between their symptoms and their time in the military.

Unfortunately, many in the military, and many in the general public, do not consider drone pilots to be vulnerable to PTSD because of the nature of their on-shift work, often being far from war zones.

How Can PTSD Affect Drone Operators?

Drone operators and pilots are important on the battlefield and in any military campaign. They scout potential hostile areas and engage in aerial and ground warfare. Drone pilots do this using advanced telecommunications technology that allows them to control aerial robots from afar without risking their physical bodies.

However, drone operators carry out many of the same tasks as “boots on the ground” Veterans, including engaging in combat and, if necessary, killing enemy combatants. Because of this, drone pilots may be vulnerable to PTSD and related symptoms.

Ending the life of another human being is never easy, even if it is from afar or that human being is an enemy. Many Veterans develop PTSD if they have to kill in self-defense, even if their job and duty require it, or if they kill to save the life of a fellow service member. Drone pilots may develop PTSD due to the similar moral weight of this action.

PTSD May Uniquely Affect Drone Operators

However, drone operators face additional challenges that may make them more susceptible to judgment or may exacerbate their PTSD symptoms.

Drone pilots are already susceptible to the immediate and long-term effects of PTSD, ranging from anger to insomnia to alcoholism. However, when they try to express their feelings, they may be mocked by fellow servicemembers or by members of the public because they weren’t at risk of death themselves.

Because of this attitude, many drone pilots are unaware that they have PTSD or conditions like acute stress disorder (ASD) until much later in life. Even after discovering they have PTSD, drone pilots might be unwilling or afraid to come forward with their condition for fear of receiving judgment or being denied the support they need.

This unhelpful attitude results in unique challenges that can affect drone pilots and make them more susceptible to the worst parts of PTSD, such as suicidal ideation, complete social withdrawal, and alcohol use disorder.

If you or a loved one were a drone operator and developed PTSD, rest assured that you qualify for benefits from the VA. With these benefits, you can get the help you need and pay for necessary medical care, like therapy or medication.

What Are the PTSD Ratings for Drone Operators?

The VA rates PTSD for drone operators and pilots the same way that it rates PTSD for all other Veterans. Readings can range from 0% to 100% rating depending on symptom severity, as broken down below:

  • 0% rating for a formal diagnosis of PTSD but with minor symptoms
  • 10% rating for PTSD that results in social and occupational impairment with transient or mild symptoms
  • 30% rating for PTSD with occasional social and occupational impairment with symptoms like anxiety, suspiciousness, or weekly panic attacks before, during, or after warfighting
  • 50% rating for PTSD with regular social and occupational impairment with symptoms like panic attacks at a frequency of more than once a week, impairment of short and long-term memory, and impaired judgment
  • 70% rating for PTSD with regular social and occupational impairment alongside symptoms like suicidal thoughts, near-continuous panic or depression, and impaired impulse control. A 70% rating is the most common PTSD rating Veterans receive
  • 100% rating for PTSD with total social and occupational impairment with severe symptoms like disorientation to time or place, memory loss, and possessing a danger of hurting oneself or others

How Can You Acquire a Service Connection for PTSD From Drone Piloting?

Many drone pilots may think that acquiring a service connection from the VA for their PTSD can be impossible. 

However, the VA recognizes that PTSD can develop in drone pilots for many of the same reasons it develops or is aggravated in other Veterans. Therefore, acquiring a service connection follows the same process for these Veterans as it does for others.

First, you need to file a VA Form 21-526. This starts your benefits claim application. Next, you’ll need to gather evidence that substantiates your PTSD claim, such as:

  • Lay statements from yourself, friends and family members, and fellow servicemembers. Lay statements explain your symptoms and state clearly that your symptoms only began after the traumatic stressor you experienced, like participating in a battle as a drone pilot.
  • Medical evidence showing you have a diagnosis of PTSD from a therapist or other medical healthcare provider. The medical evidence can also include evidence of symptoms or medication you currently take.
  • Your service records, which show that you participated in an event with one or more traumatic stressors you may have witnessed or caused.

Gathering and submitting this evidence properly can be difficult, but it doesn’t have to be. Knowledgeable Veterans law attorneys at Berry Law can help you gather this evidence and understand the claims filing process thoroughly so you don’t make a mistake and know what to expect.

More importantly, we can assist if your initial disability benefits claim is denied (either because you were a drone pilot or for another reason). We can help you through the appeals process to ensure you get the disability benefits you need to pay for your ongoing medical treatment.

Contact Berry Law Today

Ultimately, drone pilots can experience PTSD just as often as other combat Veterans. They deserve the same care, respect, and compensation as their fellow servicemembers. That’s why you should contact Berry Law today.

We know the unique difficulties that drone pilots and operators face every day. We understand that you may not get the respect you deserve from other servicemembers or the American public. 

We’ll fight for you and ensure you know your legal options and have access to the disability benefits you need to cope with PTSD or other conditions. Contact us today for a free consultation and more information.


Drone Pilots Found to Get Stress Disorders Much as Those in Combat Do | The New York Times 

Cry in the sky: Psychological impact on drone operators | PMC 

National Center for PTSD | U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration 

Berry Law

The attorneys at Berry Law are dedicated to helping injured Veterans. With extensive experience working with VA disability claims, Berry Law can help you with your disability appeals.

This material is for informational purposes only. It does not create an attorney-client relationship between the Firm and the reader, and does not constitute legal advice. Legal advice must be tailored to the specific circumstances of each case, and the contents of this blog are not a substitute for legal counsel.

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