The watchers: Airmen who surveil the Islamic State never get to look away

JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. — Her day begins following a man on a red motorcycle as he bumps down a rutted road past palm trees and cement block houses. An assault rifle is slung across his back.

While her partner stares at the video feed from an armed Air Force drone, Courtney, 29, a staff sergeant and intelligence analyst, fires off questions and compiles a running narrative.

“What’s the driver wearing?” she asks, keeping one eye on the action as she types.

“Black Western wear,” says Aaron, 20, the airman assisting her.

The motorcycle driver is speeding through Qaim, an Islamic State-controlled city in western Iraq, where the midday sun has driven temperatures over 100 degrees.

Courtney is sitting in a chilly cubicle, where purplish-pink overhead lights, designed to make the video stand out, give the room a feeling of perpetual dusk. It’s the start of another shift at this base outside Hampton, Va., on a recent morning in mid-June.

For more than three years, this has been Courtney’s war — 10 hours a day, four days a week, thousands upon thousands of hours of live video footage from Iraq and Syria.

It is an existence characterized by long stretches of boredom and grim flashes of action as she helps guide pilots’ decisions on when to shoot and watches the last seconds of another person’s life. The Air Force allowed a Washington Post reporter to spend a day with a team of its analysts — the first time a journalist was allowed to spend a full shift watching their secret work — on the condition that their last names were withheld for security reasons.

With President Trump likely to send thousands more troops to Afghanistan and maintain a military presence in Iraq indefinitely, some airmen will spend most of their careers immersed in the war zone, watching an ever-expanding flood of live video. Trump’s proposed defense budget would continue the rapid growth in worldwide drone missions. The Air Force is on pace to fly as many as 70 missions a day next year, up from fewer than 15 missions a day a decade ago

“Our airmen never get to unplug,” said Lt. Col. Alison Kamataris, the deputy commander of the 497th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Group here.

Read more at The Washington Post.