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Whiteman Drone Pilots Receive New, More Prestigious Title

A US Air Force pilot (L), and a censor operator (R), prepare to launch an MQ-1B Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), from a ground control station at a secret air base in the Persian Gulf region last January. (John Moore/Getty
A US Air Force pilot (L), and a censor operator (R), prepare to launch an MQ-1B Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), from a ground control station at a secret air base in the Persian Gulf region last January. (John Moore/Getty

WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. — The US Air Force will now recognize drone pilots who conduct remote military strikes from Whiteman Air Force Base as "attack squadrons," a designation with more prestige that could help with retention and recruitment.

The Air Force made the decision last week amid increased national attention to the unique form of stress these pilots face, The Springfield News-Leader reports.

Whiteman is home to the 20th Reconnaissance Squadron, which includes technicians, administrators, and pilots who operate the MQ-1 Predator, an unmanned aerial vehicle used for gathering intelligence and conducting deadly strikes. Drone pilots aren't physically on the battlefield in Afghanistan or Iraq, but they conduct deadly strikes on militant fighters abroad and can often see the resulting bloodshed on live video.

The unit will now be called the 20th Attack Squadron under the policy change.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said in a news release that these airmen are under significant stress as a result of their duties.

"They are in the fight every day," James said. "These policy changes recognize the burdens they bear in providing combat effects for joint war-fighters around the world."

A study by the Pentagon in 2013 concluded drone pilots have a similar rate of mental health problems as regular combat pilots.

Last year, a Hollywood film, "The Good Kill," compared the remote-controlled warfare of these drone pilots with playing video games. The movie questioned whether it allowed pilots to become too detached from victims of war.

A Whiteman spokesman referred questions about the new policy to a Nevada's Creech Air Force Base spokeswoman, who didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

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