In a telling glimpse into the lives of military intelligence analysts, Courtney, staff sergeant and intelligence analyst for the Air Force, recently was joined for a day by a Washington Post reporter. She and many others in her position are first in a chain running from her base in Virginia to air operations in Qatar all the way to the drone pilots scattered across the United States. In her position, Courtney is expected to witness killings or take part in strikes every two to three weeks — a difficult burden to comprehend and deal with, but essential nonetheless.
"We’re at war. We don’t experience bullets flying, but our decisions have direct impacts on people’s lives," Courtney said.
And this realization is the hardest part of the job. Separating job operations from home life without second-guessing decisions made on the job can take a toll on the intelligence analyst, a toll that has resulted in the rates of suicide and suicidal thoughts being "way higher than the Air Force average; they were even higher than for those people who had deployed," Col. Jason Brown, commander of the 480th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing, told the Post.
To help with the stress, the Air Force employed mental-health professionals that are available any time on the operations floor. With this implementation, the rates of suicide have fallen, but the stressors did not diminish. Instead, the stressors have increased over the past three years due to a weapon expansion that enables heavier fighting, which leads to more carnage seen on the screen.
An intelligence analyst is to watch feeds, keep tallies of everyone crossing the screen to mitigate civilian casualties, make judgement calls about threat levels, and — in the unfortunate event of witnessing a strike or killing — tally the dead.
Lt. Col. Alison Kamataris, deputy commander of the 497th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Group, explained that the airmen don’t get the opportunity to "unplug." The same abilities to train, innovate and give breaks that pilots, infantrymen, and even drone pilots are provided, are not available to intelligence analysts, she told the Post.
Each situation is different and therefore evaluated individually, and at times the target’s importance will allow for more civilian casualties. Analysts are aware of civilians, of course, but cannot set limits for pilots. "We can’t tell them, ‘This is your cutoff,’" Christopher, a tech sergeant and Courtney’s immediate supervisor on this day, told the Post, "[And] for us, it can be kind of demoralizing."
Rachael Kalinyak is an editorial intern with Network Solutions.