Drone operator who helped kill 1,626 targets reveals trauma of watching them die on a computer screen
A former drone operator who helped kill 1,626 targets says he’s haunted by the carnage he witnessed from behind his computer screen.
Brandon Bryant, 27, served as a drone operator from 2006 to 2011 at bases in Nevada, New Mexico and Iraq. It was a desk job of sorts, but unlike any other, it involved ordering unmanned aircraft to kill faraway targets while he watched.
In an interview with NBC News‘ foreign correspondent Richard Engel, Bryant recalled one operation where his team fired two missiles from a drone at three men in Afghanistan.
He can’t forget seeing the carnage of the victims
‘The guy that was running forward, he’s missing his right leg,’ he said, recalling what he saw of the scene through the thermal images on his screen. ‘And I watch this guy bleed out and, I mean, the blood is hot.’
He recalled watching the mens’ bodies grow cold, as slowly the red color detecting the heat of their bodies grew smaller.
‘I can see every little pixel if I just close my eyes,’ he said.
Former drone operator says he’s haunted by his part in more than 1,600 deaths
Jun 6, 2013
A former Air Force drone operator who says he participated in missions that killed more than 1,600 people remembers watching one of the first victims bleed to death
Brandon Bryant says he was sitting in a chair at a Nevada Air Force base operating the camera when his team fired two missiles from their drone at three men walking down a ro ad halfway around the world in Afghanistan. The missiles hit all three targets, and Bryant says he could see the aftermath on his computer screen — including thermal images of a growing puddle of hot blood.”The guy that was running forward, he’s missing his right leg,” he recalled. “And I watch this guy bleed out and, I mean, the blood is hot.”As the man died his body grew cold, said Bryant, and his thermal image changed until he became the same color as the ground.”
I can see every little pixel,” said Bryant, who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, “if I just close my eyes.”
Bryant, now 27, served as a drone operator from 2006 to 2011, at bases in Nevada, New Mexico and in Iraq, guiding unmanned drones over Iraq and Afghanistan and taking part in missions that he was told led to the deaths of an estimated 1,626 individuals. .
In an interview with NBC News, he provided a rare first-person glimpse into what it’s like to control the controversial machines that have become central to the U.S. effort to kill terrorists. He says that as an operator he was troubled by the physical disconnect between his daily routine and the violence and power of the faraway drones. “You don’t feel the aircraft turn,” he said. “You don’t feel the hum of the engine. You hear the hum of the computers, but that’s definitely not the same thing.”At the same time, the images coming back from the drones were very real and very graphic.”People say that drone strikes are like mortar attacks,” Bryant said. “Well, artillery doesn’t see this. Artillery doesn’t see the results of their actions. It’s really more intimate for us, because we see everything.”
A self-described “naïve” kid from a small Montana town, Bryant joined the Air Force in 2005 at age 19. After he scored well on tests, he said a recruiter told him that as a drone operator he would be like the smart guys in the control room in a James Bond movie, the ones who feed the agent the information he needs to complete his mission. He trained for three and a half months before participating in his first drone mission. Bryant operated the drone’s cameras from his perch at Nellis Air Force base in Nevada as the drone rose into the air just north of Baghdad. Bryant and the rest of his team were supposed to use their drone to provide support and protection to patrolling U.S. troops. But he recalls watching helplessly as insurgents buried an IED in a road and a U.S. Humvee drove over it.”We had no way to warn the troops,” he said. He later learned that three soldiers died.
Bryant is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after his five years as a drone operator. He said he sought help for the emotions he was experiencing on his job but ‘one of the weird things about the whole drone community is you don’t talk about anything that you’ve done. You just don’t,’ he told NPR.
Bryant recalled to NBC when an Air Force recruiter told him that as a drone operator, ‘he would be like the smart guys in the control room in a James Bond movie.’
But that wasn’t the case.
He said he began feeling paranoid that he was killing innocent people, not Taliban insurgents. And he felt that it wasn’t his place to question the people giving him orders to launch the missile attacks.
Deadly machines: Two Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton unmanned aerial vehicles are seen on the tarmac at a Northrop Grumman test facility in Palmdale, California
According to reports by NBC and McClatchy newspapers, Bryant’s paranoia may not be unfounded.
NBC reported Thursday that the CIA does not know the identity of a quarter of those killed in drone strikes in Pakistan.
McClatchy‘s Jonathan S. Landay has also reported that at least 265 of up to 482 people who were killed by drones during a 12-month period ending September 2011 were not senior al Qaida leaders but instead were ‘assessed’ as unknown extremists.
The reports add to growing scrutiny of President Obama’s increased reliance on unmanned aircraft. The Air Force now has roughly 1,300 drone operators, which is four times what it had in 2008.
As the drone program grows, researchers are beginning to delve into the psychological effects of remotely-controlled warfare.
A recent study by Defense Department researchers found that the prevalence of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder among drone operators is equal to that of deployed pilots.
‘Remotely piloted aircraft pilots may stare at the same piece of ground for days,’ Jean Lin Otto, co-author of the study, told the New York Times. ‘They witness the carnage. Manned aircraft pilots don’t do that. They get out of there as soon as possible.’
President Obama’s increasing reliance on unmanned aircraft has come under fire on Capitol Hill
Based on his commander’s count, Bryant helped kill 1,626 people during his time as a drone operator.
He is now retired from the Air Force and has returned to his home in Montana, where he is haunted by that number and the images of carnage that he saw.
‘I don’t feel like I can really interact with that average, everyday person,’ he told NBC. ‘I get too frustrated, because A, they don’t realize what’s going on over there. And B, they don’t care.’