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.
Infantrymen typically serve nine- to 12-month combat tours; pilots deploy for four months. Even U.S.-based drone pilots rotate off war duty every three or four years.
“We don’t have the same ability to give breaks to train or innovate,” Kamataris said of her analysts.
Air Force officials are just beginning to grapple with the long-term effects of this life. For now, they mostly have questions: How long before the intensity of the troops’ war zone experience begins to overwhelm the relative quiet of their lives off-base? Can repeated exposure to remote killing over a long career lead to moral exhaustion? What should Air Force officials do to rebuild boundaries between the war zone and home — “combat and the cul-de-sac,” in the lingo of the modern Air Force — that technology has obliterated?
Courtney, meanwhile, has more immediate concerns. On this morning, she is both watching life in a distant city and waiting to see whether her name is on a list, due to be released in about an hour, of airmen selected to go to officer training school. The promotion would free her from the daily grind of the video feed and give her broader responsibilities overseeing airmen and positioning Air Force intelligence assets on the battlefield.
A few cubicles away, her fellow airmen, anticipating good news, have bought a celebratory cake. “It’s going to be a sad cake or a happy cake,” she says. “Either way, we’re having cake.”
Courtney was working as a paralegal at a law firm near her home town in Louisiana and weighing law school when she first applied to be an Air Force officer. The Air Force had seemed like a chance to serve and see the world.
When she wasn’t selected for officer training in 2013, she decided to enlist as an intelligence analyst, a job that would put her quickly into the fight. Unlike most enlistees, she has a college degree.
Courtney is the first link in a chain that runs from her base in Virginia to the air operations center in Qatar to the drone pilots scattered across the United States. The targets are chosen by commanders who rely on voice intercepts, satellites, human intelligence, high-altitude surveillance planes and the analysis of people such as Courtney.
Only a few months into her work here, she was looking for a gathering of Islamic State fighters in northern Iraq. She found their trucks parked in the desert and, as the drone’s camera panned, spotted the fighters who were firing their weapons into a mass of about 50 unarmed men, packed shoulder to shoulder in a ditch.
The fighters rumbled past two more mass graves before coming to a stop on the side of the highway. Courtney scanned the area for women and children. There were none, so the Air Force planes let loose.
Courtney’s next job was to tally the dead. “I hadn’t witnessed anything that gruesome before,” she says. “It was shocking.” She stayed after work to talk with Air Force mental- health counselors. The next day she was back behind the screen.
The toughest part of the job, she says, has been forgetting about it when she goes home and not second-guessing decisions. “We’re at war,” she says. “We don’t experience bullets flying, but our decisions have direct impacts on people’s lives.”
Analysts such as Courtney typically take part in strikes or witness acts of killing every two to three weeks. In between, they spend hours upon hours watching scenes of everyday life unfold on their screens: children playing, women shopping, men gathering for evening prayers.
Now Courtney and her partner are orbiting a crossing over the Euphrates River, moving from Iraq into Syria.
“On the south side of the river there’s a ferry carrying a white truck and two adult males,” Aaron says. “It looks like there’s also a motorcycle on board.”
“Yeah, it’s a motorcycle,” Courtney says, leaning in for a better look.
Neither she nor Aaron can make out any weapons, which suggests it’s just another scene of everyday life in Islamic State territory.
She checks her watch and notices it’s a few minutes before 10 a.m., when the list of airmen selected for officer training is due to be released online.
Another airman takes her place behind the video screen. Courtney slides her chair a few feet to her left and logs onto the Air Force personnel website. A banner at the top of the screen reads: “Active FY17 Officer Selection Board Updates!” But the names have yet to post.
“A lesson in patience,” she says, drumming her fingers on the desk.
She refreshes the page a few more times. Nothing.
Courtney’s colleague watches as the drone moves from the river crossing to a suspected Islamic State “operations center,” which on the screen looks like almost every other blocky, cement house in eastern Syria. A woman in a black abaya glides past, trailed by a child.
Courtney, still waiting, pops her knuckles and refreshes the screen. “Oh, goodness gracious,” she whispers under her breath.
Eventually, another airman who has also applied for an officer slot tells her to type PSDM, short for “personnel services delivery memorandum,” into the website’s search bar.
It takes only a few seconds for Courtney to scan the list and realize she’s not among the airmen who were selected. She looks to see whether any other intelligence analysts were picked and texts her disappointing news to a friend: “No cigar. Only 63 selected.”
A deep breath, and then she’s back to the drone feed.
“There’s a child in the alley to the south of the building,” Aaron is saying.
“What?” Courtney asks, an edge of sadness and frustration in her voice.
For the next few hours, the pace is unrelenting. They orbit a warehouse complex, another Islamic State “operations center,” an enemy checkpoint. They follow a truck, a motorcycle and then another truck.
Courtney’s immediate supervisor, a tech sergeant, approaches her cubicle and asks gingerly about the officer list.
“Sorry,” he says.
“Don’t be,” she replies, her eyes fixed on the screen. “That makes nobody feel better.”
“You’ll make it next time,” he offers.
Courtney’s job is to watch the video feed and make judgments: Are the people on the screen civilians or enemies? Do they pose a threat to U.S. troops or allies? Does it make more sense to shoot now, or wait and see where they go or what they do?
To mitigate civilian casualties she keeps a tally of men, women and children in the area. She makes note of anyone who crosses her screen.
“One previously unobserved adult male pushed a wheelbarrow on the south side of the target building,” Courtney writes while observing a suspected Islamic State drone factory. “He took a box — already present in the wheelbarrow — into the building.”
She types her observations in a chat room that is monitored by dozens of U.S. military and intelligence officials around the world, where even the smallest details can have life-or-death consequences. After U.S. and coalition airstrikes last September mistakenly killed 62 Syrian troops, a military investigation honed in on communications among the pilots, commanders and the analysts, who had doubts about the target.
“A single word made the difference between shooting and not shooting,” said an Air Force intelligence officer who oversees operations at the base here.
To sharpen the analysts’ vigilance, the Air Force is experimenting with different lighting schemes. And to help with stress, particularly after strikes that result in civilian casualties, a psychiatrist and mental-health counselor have been assigned full-time to the operations floor.
“Our suicide and suicidal ideation rates were way higher than the Air Force average; they were even higher than for those people who had deployed,” said Col. Jason Brown, commander of the 480th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing. “Something had to be done.”
The suicide rates in the small community have fallen with the introduction of the mental- health teams, Brown said. The stressors, though, haven’t diminished. In the past three years, Air Force officials said there has been a tenfold increase in weapons expended on the battlefield. The heavier fighting has meant more scenes of carnage on the feed.
In some instances, the demands of urban combat and a more aggressive approach to the war have meant taking shots even when analysts determine civilians are present. The number of allowable civilian casualties can vary with the importance of the target.
“For us, it can be kind of demoralizing,” says Christopher, a tech sergeant and Courtney’s immediate supervisor on this day. “We’re aware of civilians,” he says, but the analysts don’t set the limits for pilots. “We can’t tell them, ‘This is your cutoff,’ ” Christopher says.
“We’re shifting,” Courtney says as her drone heads for what she is told is a suspected Islamic State war “spoils camp.”
“That’s an interesting name,” says Aaron, who assumes it’s a place where the Islamic State stashes captured loot.
Night has fallen in the desert, and the men at the camp are stretched out on mats under the stars.
“Was that a cigarette he just tossed?” Aaron asks, pointing to one of the men on the screen.
“Yeah,” Courtney says. “This doesn’t really seem nefarious.”
In fact, it looks like a typical Bedouin campsite. Camels lope across the screen. No one appears to be armed.
Courtney’s squadron commander pulls her aside to offer her some words of encouragement on becoming an officer.
“The service didn’t see fit this time,” he says. “But it doesn’t mean no. It just means not right now.”
She walks back to her cubicle, passing people eating her celebration cake. A few minutes later she’s back at the screen, transiting to the next location in her target deck: an Islamic State safe house. She studies the cluster of buildings, the curve of the road and the placement of the satellite dishes on the roofs.
“Hey, I’ve been here before,” she says. “I just recognized it.”
“It’s like driving through your home town,” Aaron replies. “You get familiar.”
Courtney watches a man shoo a dog and children at play. Her relief arrives and boots up his computer a few minutes before 4 p.m.
“Your eyes are free,” he tells her.
She stands up and stretches.
Her first call when she leaves the building is to her parents to let them know she wasn’t selected for officer training. Early the next morning, she’s back in her chair, back in the war, floating somewhere over Syria.