Assassinations targeted by US drones are notoriously prone to civilian casualties. It wreaks havoc on drone pilots too, as the job slowly eats away at their souls, a ex-operator told RT in an interview for the Unheard Voices Project.
Brandon Bryant served in the United States Army between 2006 and 2011, targeting drone strikes from Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico. His job was to point a laser at where a Hellfire missile fired by a colleague from a Predator drone should strike. He believes he personally contributed to the deaths of 13 people.
After the first time he helped kill three people he believed to be innocent, he called his mother crying. “She told me it was good that I felt bad, because if I felt good I would be just another psychopath.” he recalled.
Like many other recruits, Bryant joined the military because it was a way to get an education. He wanted to be a journalist.
The military came one day and said, we’ll pay for your education if you serve for at least four years. How can we refuse?
He was one of many young adults who were told their new occupation was “kill people and break things” he said. Drone operators are “guys and girls” fresh out of high school, who are “mainly snipers from video games, four months of training, put in a situation of [life and death] the decisions.”
Watching people get killed, even through a monitor over 10,000 km away, comes at a cost. Bryant saw the deaths of friendly soldiers, enemies and innocent civilians, including those whose lives he helped end.
“‘Mental degradation” would be an appropriate term “, he says, explaining how operators deal with stress. “Every hit that we took – like they cheered each other on, they were congratulating each other, they were congratulating each other.”
It’s like a wasting away of who you are.
Drone wars were started under George W. Bush, but it was Barack Obama who dramatically increased its use, and Bryant was part of that wave. One of the most controversial drone strikes under the Democratic president – and one that touched Bryant a lot – occurred in Yemen in 2011. It killed US citizen Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, 16, the preacher’s son. and US-Yemeni terrorist figure. Anwar al-Awlaki. Also a US citizen, he was killed in a “signing strike” two weeks earlier.
Leaks from the US government indicated that Abdulrahman was a bystander killed in a legitimate strike targeting a senior Al Qaeda official. Bryant said he heard different reasoning: “They said because they didn’t want him to become a figurehead.”
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Donald Trump, who infamously once celebrated “you must leave [terrorists’] families,” stepped up US airstrikes during his tenure. The eight-year-old daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki was reportedly killed in an American raid a few weeks after taking office.
“Maybe to them it seems convenient, but to me it seems… wrong. “ Bryant told RT.
When the drone pilot retired from the military, he suffered from PTSD, lacked a sense of identity and a purpose in life, he said. At one point, he almost committed suicide with his handgun.
“The only reason I didn’t do it was because of [my dog]. He just wanted to go for a walk. he said. “And I’m sitting there with a gun in my hand, ready to do it, and he’s like ‘Daddy, let’s go for a walk!”“
Bryant found solace in speaking about his experiences and criticizing America’s drone warfare program. He spoke to RT for his special documentary project, Unheard Voices, produced for the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the many casualties as a direct result of the war on terror that followed.
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