During an interview earlier this year, Brandon Bryant told NBC's Richard Engel that he felt like he became a 'heartless' 'sociopath' under the drone program.
In a new GQ profile, a former participant in the U.S. military's controversial drone program reveals the horrors of being a remote killer, responsible for more than 1,600 deaths. Brandon Bryant was one of the early inductees into the U.S. Air Force's drone warfare push, and he sat for six years in control stations in Nevada and New Mexico, firing on targets thousands of miles away in Iraq and Afghanistan. In one incident, Bryant recalls realizing an attack he was monitoring had just killed a child, however in the Army's review the victim was listed as a dog. In 2011, a fatigued Bryant left flying and was soon after diagnosed with PTSD, an illness which has been found to affect as many drone operators as in-combat aircrews.
"Bryant’s second shot came a few weeks after targeting the three men on that dirt road in Kunar. He was paired with a pilot he didn’t much like, instructed to monitor a compound that intel told them contained a high-value individual—maybe a Taliban commander or Al Qaeda affiliate, nobody briefed him on the specifics. It was a typical Afghan mud-brick home, goats and cows milling around a central courtyard. They watched a corner of the compound’s main building, bored senseless for hours. They assumed the target was asleep.
Then the quiet ended. “We get this word that we’re gonna fire,” he says. “We’re gonna shoot and collapse the building. They’ve gotten intel that the guy is inside.” The drone crew received no further information, no details of who the target was or why he needed a Hellfire dropped on his roof.
Bryant’s laser hovered on the corner of the building. “Missile off the rail.” Nothing moved inside the compound but the eerily glowing cows and goats. Bryant zoned out at the pixels. Then, about six seconds before impact, he saw a hurried movement in the compound. “This figure runs around the corner, the outside, toward the front of the building. And it looked like a little kid to me. Like a little human person.”
Bryant stared at the screen, frozen. “There’s this giant flash, and all of a sudden there’s no person there.” He looked over at the pilot and asked, “Did that look like a child to you?” They typed a chat message to their screener, an intelligence observer who was watching the shot from “somewhere in the world”—maybe Bagram, maybe the Pentagon, Bryant had no idea—asking if a child had just run directly into the path of their shot.
“And he says, ‘Per the review, it’s a dog.’ ”
Bryant and the pilot replayed the shot, recorded on eight-millimeter tape. They watched it over and over, the figure darting around the corner. Bryant was certain it wasn’t a dog."
While Bryant has never been philosophically opposed to the use of drones -- he sees them as a tool, like that can be used for good ends -- citing their potential use to fight poachers, or for monitoring forest fires. He believes it’s about who controls them, and toward what ends. “It can’t be a small group of people deciding how they’re used,” he says. “There’s got to beMeet one of the first recruits for a new kind of warfare in which men and machines merge. . People have to know how they’re being used so they’re used responsibly.”
Back home in Missoula in mid 2011, Bryant went to see a therapist at the urging of a Vietnam veteran he met at the local VA office. After just a couple of sessions, he broke down: “I told her I wanted to be a hero, but I don’t feel like a hero. I wanted to do something good, but I feel like I just wasted the last six years of my life.” The therapist diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder.