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“Grounded” (a drone pilot’s story) through the eyes of a “ground guy”

Last night I attended the opening night of Anne Hathaway’s performance in “Grounded,” directed by Julie Taymor. I had no idea what to expect and only had a brief chance to glance at the synopsis while looking up the address of The Public Theater on my smartphone on the walk from Astor Place station. I saw that it dealt with the psychological trauma experienced by a fighter pilot turned drone controller.

I don’t remember precisely… but I’m pretty sure I snorted in derision when I read that line.

I, like many others, was on active duty when the “Distinguished Warfare Medal” was planned. It was to be a medal that would have allowed drone pilots to receive a combat-related award despite not physically serving in a combat zone. It would have been placed above both the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart in the order of precedence. The planning of the aforementioned medal led to many a discussion about the nature of the service of drone pilots. Conversations happened about the psychological stresses of watching a target for days on end before taking their lives. Angry debates raged about how someone in an air conditioned trailer could claim PTSD for an event that happened 8,000 miles away. All in all, the general perception from the perspective of the troops on the ground was a disparaging eye-roll at best. That’s not to say that deep down we didn’t appreciate and love the eyes in the sky that gave us actionable intelligence and kept us and our comrades-at-arms safe through over-watch. We just resented the suggestion that someone outside of a combat zone was going through the same trials that we had signed up for.

Yet, regardless of the biases I walked in with, “Grounded” touched me. The story of an F-16 pilot turned drone controller was emotionally charged and when Hathaway talked about the difficulties of returning from her 12 hour shifts at the stick, watching blood turn cold through thermal imaging, it was deep. The writing had the audience chuckling and laughing in the beginning but in a final sad scene a pin drop could have been heard throughout the small intimate theater of The Public. During scenes where she was discussing her feelings with a counselor, the words coming out of her mouth reminded me distinctly of conversations I had with my roommate after a return from overseas.

And all of this is to say nothing of how the authors and actor portray the difficulties of PTSD. I doubt that any soldier who has served on active duty can say that they don’t know someone afflicted with post-traumatic stress. I would go so far that most even know someone who has, at the least, attempted suicide as a result. Yet, despite the military community’s sad but intimate knowledge of the subject, our civilian counterparts often misunderstand and underestimate the severity of the issue. “Grounded” never mentions the acronym or the concept but the portrayal of its effects on a service member and their family is as poignant as any I’ve seen in the media. It was gripping, it was moving, it was depressing and it was raw. It was a portrayal that I wish could be seen by a larger audience; if only to move them to understand how painful this affliction can be and how badly our veterans and their families deserve and need access to a stronger system of care.

Hathaway’s performance (90 minutes of charged emotion, on her own, without pause) was amazing and while I may have walked in guffawing about drone pilots I left the theater rethinking how I had callously blown them off in the past. It was a reminder that every soldier, sailor, airmen and Marine carries the burden of their past along with their pride in their service. It was a story which showed how technology will never remove the emotional trauma involved with armed conflict. It was simply an amazing show whose audience went home with a better understanding of the demands, emotional and spiritual, placed upon those who served.

Zej Moczydlowski, IAVA Member

Zej Moczydlowski is a graduate of the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University, a Special Operations Combat Medic who served on active duty from 2009 to 2014, a current Army Reservist and the Director of East Coast Operations for a veteran-run security consulting firm, Green Cedar Group. The views expressed above are solely his personal opinion and do not reflect the views of any other party.

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