Six days a week, Shannon Rogers kisses his wife and two young kids goodbye and wheels his battered 1989 Chevy Cavalier out of the driveway of his suburban Nevada home. The houses here are cookie cutter, done in beige stucco. Like most of the other dads and some moms in this traditional middle-class community, Rogers heads down Interstate 215, toward his job near Las Vegas, using the 30-minute drive to make the mental transition from family man to workplace professional. But Rogers will end up in a place far different from that of his fellow commuters: when he arrives at work, he will be at war in Iraq.
Rogers, an Air Force major and experienced fighter pilot, is part of an élite group of U.S. troops playing a crucial role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from the U.S.'s most notorious playground. From Nellis Air Force Base, outside Las Vegas, Rogers controls a Predator, a flimsy drone that has been transformed from a spy plane into one of the wars' most lethal weapons. Predators played a key part in catching Saddam Hussein and have killed al-Qaeda suspects in Pakistan and Yemen. In September a Predator tracked 11 insurgents who had attacked a U.S. base in Iraq, then killed them as they fled.
What makes the Predator mission--and Rogers' job--so unusual is the 7,000 miles between pilot and plane. Basing the crew members at home rather than at the front keeps them out of harm's way and saves the military money. Still, "for us, it's combat," says Rogers, 34, who has been deployed to battle zones twice, most recently Iraq this summer. "Physically, we may be in Vegas, but mentally, we're flying over Iraq. It feels real."
Certainly the decisions they face are life and death, as TIME observed when it was recently granted exclusive access to operations of the Air Force's 15th Reconnaissance Squadron, which commands 25 Predators from Nellis. It was 10:30 p.m. in Nevada, 9:30 a.m. in Iraq, and after two hours of watching insurgents fire a pickup-truck-mounted .50-cal. machine gun at U.S. troops in western Iraq, Rogers and the sensor operator with whom he works were given the command to shoot the truck. Both developed a case of what Rogers calls the "trembles"--the nervousness of wanting to kill the enemy but injure no one else, combined with the enormity of taking human lives. Just as Rogers pushed the button to let fly one of the Predator's Hellfire missiles, a car appeared and started to drive toward the pickup. His partner's job is to keep the missile locked on target or, if necessary, divert it to a place where it would cause as little damage as possible. "What do we do, sir?" the partner asked in a shaky voice. "Stay on the target and hope he drives fast," said Rogers coolly. The car passed, and the truck exploded violently when the Hellfire struck. Rogers let out a whoop and exchanged high fives with his partner.