Navigate the shift: Performance tips for deployed-in-place Warfighters and their families

As remote combat technology advances, Service Members and their families are redefining what successful deployment—and the transition home—looks like. For military personnel who are deployed in place and engage in remote combat, the difference between running missions on the battlefield and running with your kids on the baseball field is just a short commute. It’s not always easy for Warfighters to make the daily transition from “combat to cul-de-sac,” but everyone can play a role in making that shift a little smoother.

Behind the SCIF: Deployed in place

Since it’s a newer concept, it can be tough for families and communities to really understand what it means to be deployed in place. So it’s best to start with the basics.

Remote combat (sometimes called telewarfare) is war that occurs from afar. Warfighters safely stationed in the U.S. or on military installations abroad use remotely piloted aircrafts (RPAs) or “drones” to support and conduct global combat operations in real time. They gather information, track targets, provide support or protection to units on the ground, and strike when necessary. Although remote combat operators aren’t in physical danger, they might witness injuries or deaths of U.S. forces and civilians. Sometimes they have to make choices that result in those outcomes as well. And when their shift ends, many head home.

Since remote combat operators usually can’t discuss their jobs for security reasons, it can be easy for loved ones to forget they’re on a mission, especially since they’re not deployed in the traditional sense. Like other Warfighters who engage in combat, remote combat operators also are at risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, anger, fatigue, moral injury, and substance abuse.

Remote combat operators also face other unique challenges:

  • Operational issues. The functional aspects of telewarfare operations include shift work, which is often associated with long hours, reversed sleep schedules, and inconsistent sleep patterns—all linked to poorer health. Operators’ work also requires sustained, heightened vigilance to “not miss something,” and they tend to sit in the dark and stare at screens for prolonged periods. If they’re working the night shift, Warfighters are out of phase with their families, friends, and base support services too.
  • Work-life spillover. For remote combat operators, there’s no clear separation between their work and personal lives. Operators and pilots demobilize daily from active operations and commute home, making it harder to separate the two.
  • Isolation from support. There are barriers to operators seeking help from mental health professionals as well. Most mental health providers lack security clearances to hear about Warfighters’ day-to-day experiences. Some operators also might fear getting mental health care could impact their security clearances, and some pilots might worry about being “grounded” from flying.
  • Psychological connection to targets. Although physically distant from those they might be observing, operators can learn very personal details about their targets. For example, they can spend days, weeks, or months observing someone doing normal activities. The level of familiarity with their targets can add a unique and sometimes challenging element to remote combat.
  • Unseen valor. Courage is often portrayed as something found on the battlefield or in theater. Service Members who are deployed in place aren’t always acknowledged for their successes, injuries, or bravery because they aren’t in physical danger. Unlike warriors returning from abroad, there aren’t celebrations or rituals welcoming these Warfighters home.

A family-centered approach to transition

Whether you or your loved one is deployed in place, remember communication is key. There are things you can do to optimize your performance and make the transition between work and home smoother for your family.

Work-home transition tips for Warfighters

There’s a big difference between the world of combat and life at home, so it’s important to have time and space to transition between both. Boundaries can help keep your focus where it needs to be—whether you’re on base or at home. Since the physical distance might not be enough, try these strategies to create mental distance between work and home:

  • Maximize your commute. Sometimes a long drive can help you get centered and refocus your mental energy. Try meditation, breathing exercises, or mindfulness to make the mental transition from home to work and back.
  • Take a break. On your way home, you might stop at a peaceful place, go for a walk, or even run errands so you aren’t transitioning directly from the workplace to your family space.
  • Move more. Physical activity helps clear your mind and body of stress hormones, and it helps you reset physically and mentally for your role as spouse or parent.
  • Sleep it off. Healthy sleep helps your body and mind recover from the stresses of the day. You’ll be better equipped to manage your feelings and maintain focus too.
  • Ask for support. If you’re having a hard day, let your family know. It’s important to be open with your spouse, partner, or other family members if you need a little extra space. It also can help them understand your reactions or moods, so they don’t take things personally.

For Warfighters and their families

  • Maintain a routine. Shift work can be a real obstacle for many deployed-in-place Service Members. So when it comes to day-to-day stuff, having a regular meal and sleep schedule can make a big difference for the entire family.
  • Leverage your free time. Weekends (or days off) are important times for Service Members and their families to replenish emotional, physical, and mental resources. In fact, doing things together as a family will help you recover from work better than doing things alone. So get the most out of your spare time by having family fun in addition to those hobbies or activities you might do on your own.
  • Manage your feelings. For example, if you’re wound up about something that happened at home, you’ll have a hard time responding with a clear head when you’re at work. Or if you’re unable to process something from work, you might find yourself getting angry or being short with everyone at home. Practice slowing down and seek help when you need it to avoid feeling overwhelmed or losing control of your feelings.   
  • Don’t go it alone. Often partners, spouses, and even children can be affected by a family member’s combat trauma. This is called secondary or vicarious trauma, and it’s serious. It can come from empathizing with your Warfighter’s experiences or even just dealing with the day-to-day stress that comes with supporting someone deployed in place. To prevent isolation and increase your family’s resilience, seek social support or find other families who might be going through the same things.

Bottom line

It’s easy to forget the transition from combat to home happens every day for deployed-in-place Warfighters. Still, it doesn’t mean the transition is always smooth. In some ways, it’s even harder than returning from a long-term deployment. The good news is when your family can navigate things together, everyone benefits.


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References

Armour, C., & Ross, J. (2017). The health and well-being of military drone operators and intelligence analysts: A systematic review. Military Psychology, 29(2), 83–98. doi:10.1037/mil0000149

Chappelle, W., Goodman, T., Reardon, L., & Thompson, W. (2014). An analysis of post-traumatic stress symptoms in United States Air Force drone operators. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 28(5), 480–487. doi:10.1016/j.janxdis.2014.05.003

Ogle, A. D., & Young, J. A. (2016). USAF special tactics operator combat exposure and psychological stress. Military Psychology, 28(3), 123–133. doi:10.1037/mil0000121

Otto, J. L., & Webber, B. J. (2013). Mental health diagnoses and counseling among pilots of remotely piloted aircraft in the United States Air Force. Medical Surveillance Monthly Report, 20(3), 3–8. 

Ogle, A. (9/20/17). Remote combat stress: Psychological outcomes related to remote combat/graphic media exploitation operations. Presented at the 2017 DCoE Summit on Advances in the State of the Science and Best Practices, Video webinar.