Pilots Rescued in Libya Get Physical and Mental Screening

PHOTO Libya: US airmen safe after jet crashes near BenghaziPlaySebastian Meyer/The Telegraph
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The two U.S. airmen rescued from Libya after their F-15 jetfighter crashed will undergo lengthy psychological and medical screening before returning to the cockpit, a far cry from the policies of just a decade ago in which downed pilots were quickly returned to battle.

The pilot and weapons officer forced to eject when their plane experienced a mechanical malfunction are undergoing what the military calls a "reintegration process," checking for signs of physical injury and emotional stress.

"The reintegration process is standard for any military member who experiences a traumatic or stressful event such as ejecting from an aircraft and landing in a possible hostile area," said an Air Force spokesman from the USS Mt. McKinley, the naval ship that is headquarters for U.S. officials commanding the air operation over Libya.

A special unit at Ramstein Air Base, home of the U.S. Air Force in Europe, called the "Deployment Transition Center" evaluates returning airmen and provides psychological and faith-based counseling.

The center is designed to deal particularly with those airmen "regularly exposed to significant risk of death in a combat zone," according to the Air Force.

"As 'outside-the-wire' missions increased and exposure rates climbed, we realized we needed a more robust program to address the full spectrum of resiliency issues airmen were facing," Janet Watkins, director of Airmen Resiliency Division said in a statement in July when the center became operational.

Ejecting into potentially hostile territory can be physically traumatizing. An ejecting airman is propelled from the cockpit at three times the force of gravity and there is further risk of "flailing injuries" from high wind speeds.

In addition, an ejected pilot faces psychological stress related to the possibility of capture.

Lt. Cmdr. Jim Hoeft,a spokesman for the Libyan campaign, Joint Task Force Odyssey Dawn, called the F-15 flight crew's ordeal "a negative isolating experience," and said reintegration was intended to get them from "the incident back to their normal duty status."

Hoeft said an important part of reintegration was creating a stress-free environment for the crew.

"During this first phase of treatment, which the F-15E crew members are in, care is the priority and unnecessary stress is avoided," he said.

An indication of how protective the Air Force has been with the downed pilots: their names have yet to be released.

Scott O'Grady Lived on Bugs and Grass After Being Shot Down Over Bosnia

That experience is markedly different from that of former Air Force Capt. Scott O'Grady, who was shot down over Bosnia while enforcing a NATO no-fly zone in 1995. O'Grady survived on bugs and grass while dodging Serb soldiers hunting for six days, and was back in the cockpit just days after being scooped up by a rescue crew.

"I was out in hiding for six days behind enemy lines. I knew that America would not leave me behind," O'Grady told ABCNews.com.

Within hours of his rescue, O'Grady flew himself back to Germany where he was beset by the news media. He returned to the U.S. for photo opportunities at the White House and Pentagon, and a few days later was back in the cockpit, again flying sorties over Bosnia.

"When you are coming down in a parachute into hostile territory where you have a lot of enemy potential either being captured or being executed, it does give you a heightened sense of awareness," O'Grady said.

The relief of being rescued was quickly replaced with the stress of an abrupt homecoming with little time to debrief or decompress.

"I was basically just given time to rest for the evening," he said of the period that followed his rescue on board an aircraft carrier. "I woke up the next morning and flew out to return to base, where unbeknownst to me, I walked into a media hailstorm."

"The military learned that is not the best way to bring someone back who has been separated from forces. And that's why there are these new procedures in place," he said.