By June 11, 2013 38 Comments Read More →

“I felt like a sociopath” – Drone Operator Says He Is Haunted By The 1,600 He Killed

“I lost that respect for life… I became heartless… I felt like a sociopath… I wanted to kill these people”

By Richard Engel

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 road 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 sensor operator from 2006 to 2011, at bases in Nevada, New Mexico and in Iraq, guiding unmanned drones over Iraq and Afghanistan. Though he didn’t fire missiles himself he took 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.
And once he had taken part in a kill, any remaining illusions about James Bond disappeared. “Like, this isn’t a videogame,” he said. “This isn’t some sort of fantasy. This is war. People die.”

Brandon Bryant stands with a Predator drone in Nevada. 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.

Bryant said that most of the time he was an operator, he and his team and his commanding officers made a concerted effort to avoid civilian casualties.

But he began to wonder who the enemy targets on the ground were, and whether they really posed a threat. He’s still not certain whether the three men in Afghanistan were really Taliban insurgents or just men with guns in a country where many people carry guns. The men were five miles from American forces arguing with each other when the first missile hit them.

“They (didn’t) seem to be in a hurry,” he recalled. “They (were) just doing their thing. … They were probably carrying rifles, but I wasn’t convinced that they were bad guys.“ But as a 21-year-old airman, said Bryant, he didn’t think he had the standing to ask questions.

He also remembers being convinced that he had seen a child scurry onto his screen during one mission just before a missile struck, despite assurances from others that the figure he’d seen was really a dog.

After participating in hundreds of missions over the years, Bryant said he “lost respect for life” and began to feel like a sociopath. He remembers coming into work in 2010, seeing pictures of targeted individuals on the wall – Anwar al-Awlaki and other al Qaeda and Taliban leaders — and musing, “Which one of these f_____s is going to die today?”

In 2011, as Bryant’s career as a drone operator neared its end, he said his commander presented him with what amounted to a scorecard. It showed that he had participated in missions that contributed to the deaths of 1,626 people.

“I would’ve been happy if they never even showed me the piece of paper,” he said.

“I’ve seen American soldiers die, innocent people die, and insurgents die. And it’s not pretty. It’s not something that I want to have — this diploma.”

Now that he’s out of the Air Force and back home in Montana, Bryant said he doesn’t want to think about how many people on that list might’ve been innocent: “It’s too heartbreaking.”

The Veterans Administration diagnosed him with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, for which he has undergone counseling. He says his PTSD has manifested itself as anger, sleeplessness and blackout drinking.

“I don’t feel like I can really interact with that average, everyday person,” he said. “I get too frustrated, because A) they don’t realize what’s going on over there. And B) they don’t care.”

He’s also reluctant to tell the people in his personal life what he was doing for five years. When he told a woman he was seeing that he’d been a drone operator, and contributed to the deaths of a large number of people, she cut him off. “She looked at me like I was a monster,” he said. “And she never wanted to touch me again.”

 

  • OcculatedAgainstSanity

    Why can’t this world just give peace a chance?

    • Lies

      because that is an ignornant statement

      • A

        “War” is the ignorant statement…

  • larry

    I programmed most the tomahawk strike missles for the gulf war.
    I sleep like a baby. You have a mission now do it. All this and I am a democrat too, not a war mongering repuke. I would prefer no war but there is a need.

    • timmy

      I suspect if you really had, you might have a better grasp of the English language

      • Bob

        Larry, the cable guy.

    • DMW

      There is no need for war. To think that we do is brainwashing. Hmans resorting to war devolves us back to the animal/human when we have the potential to be so much more. We have a new paradigm which is no killing of any sort. Let’s see how ingenious we can become using persuasion and communications skills and developing those instead of resorting to killing whomever we disagree with. Have you ever wondered why your “superiors” never are the ones to do the dirty work, they just make decisions and use their minions (ie: people like you)to carry out atrocities? You may sleep well but you are responsible for someone else’s loved on to never have that opportunity again. You are currently yes, a sociopath and should be identified as such in order to protect those you come into contact with. But everyone has the opportunity to change. As long as there is life.

    • Rob Reiken

      All i heard you say is, Hi Hitler bla bla bla bla bla , must kill all the innocent people bla bla bla bla bla cause we need war bla bla. Your a hypocrite for how can you say your not a war monger & then say we need war. Who are you to say we need to die cause you are for it but your not. Keep your BS comments to yourself or are you government paid to shill this crap you war monger?

  • Ivan.NewZealand.

    “I felt like a sociopath” because you are a sociopath.And a vile coward.Your name has been duly noted.
    Ivan.NewZealand.

    • A

      “Un-note” his name please… The “vile cowards” are the ones that haven’t come forth yet. This guy is attempting to “atone for his sins” by coming forward. No one but his own conscience has compelled him to tell his story. He is already living a kind of a hell inside. Don’t add to it.

      • Ivan.NewZealand.

        You use the usual ameriscum excuse of blaming the victims.Dead Pakistani children did not make this evil bastard what he is.Like most of you whiney vile turds he was the product of his upbringing.Now go and watch your reality TV.

        • emil

          Fuck you Ivan. Go jump off a cliff and don’t pull the chord.
          PTSD is hell and he is trying to atone for his sins. It isn’t like he, of his own volition, sought out people to kill. I’m sure he joined dumb enough to believe he’d be making things better for our country which is naieve but it’s the governments fault. They lie to us and once in power unleash hell. Don’t you fucking stereotype me you ignorant piece of human ass slime.

          • Notta Murderer

            I don’t see him trying to atone for anything, all I get from this article is a bunch of pathetic self-pitying whining. I’m glad he’s suffering it serves the murdering bastard right. I hope he suffers for the rest of his pointless and miserable life.

          • macs

            well he did what do u think is going to happen when you join the force.

          • Danny James

            Hello, laureates of the modern age. You shouldn’t criticize what you consider primitive behavior while tearing one another to pieces with… well, out of charity, I’ll attribute your spelling foibles to passionate haste. I assume you know, pen and sword alike are forged in the same vitriolic place… If not, then consider this a suggestion in social commune.
            This young man was caught up in some serious shit. His disease has no easy diagnosis. If he is to be believed (I take everything I read or hear second hand with a cup of salt; no wonder I have high blood pressure — your fault!), he is trying to be well, and, if he is only doing so to sleep better at night, his selfishness will benefit mankind far more than any sort of social punishment you think ought to be delivered. These soldiers, kids, these murderers, for I suppose that is what they are, can not close their eyes without seeing death; they can not speak out without fear of vehement reprisal, from their fathers, mothers, gated communities just outside of Albuquerque… even from anonymous cowards on the internet. I, too, wish he had possessed a more compassionate heart; however, do not downplay the impact of a soldier’s transformation from monster to journalist. We are, all of us, cursed. Love him, or hate yourself. Just a thought, and I think it is a just thought.

          • Dlala Nam

            Maybe we should say the NAZIs that were gassing Jews also “joined dumb enough to believe (they)’d be making things better for (their) country which is naieve but it’s the governments fault.”

            See? It does not sit well. Let’s stop the hypocrissy. I am not judging the kid, but what is being done is no different to what was done to the native Americans, they are being ‘genocided’ for their country’s natural wealth. And THAT is the truth.

    • Apryl

      SHAME ON ALL OF YOU WHO ARE TALKING SHIT ABOUT ANY SOLIDER THAT HAS PUT THERE ASS ON THE LINE FOR YOUR FREEDOM AND THIS COUNTRY.. I DIDN’T HEAR OR SEE NONE OF YOU OUT THERE ON THE FRONT LINE FIGHTING FOR THIS COUNTRY SO UNLESS YOU HAVE FIRST HAND EXPERIENCED THIS YOU SHOULD PUT A CAN IN IT. YOU WANT TO BLAME ANYBODY OF ALL THE DEATH AND KILLINGS. LOOK AT THE GOVERNMENT THEY SPIT OUT THE ORDERS . IT’S A JOB!!!!!! I DON’T SEE ANYBODY CALLING A BUTCHER A MURDERER HE KILLS EVERYDAY JUST A DIFFERENT SPECIES. IVAN- I BET YOU HAVE NEVER SERVED A DAY IN YOUR LIFE. MAYBE YOUR NAME SHOULD BE NOTED AS A BULLY!!!!!!!! OR BETTER YET A PATHETIC HUMAN!!!! HOORAH!!!!!

      • Clearwater

        Apryl, SHAME on you for thinking even for a second that
        1 “he put his ass on the line”. He fought a war from a computer terminal from 1000′s of miles away from the battlefront!
        2 “defending freedom and his country” total BS, they are over there securing n natural resources for the military industrial complex.
        3 “it’s a job” So was being a gas chamber operator for Nazi Germany…

    • Kim David

      He’s not a sociopath. Everyone is capable of doing terrible or sinister things, given the situation. This guy was ordered to kill people and was given what seemed like logical reasons for doing so, for example, if the people weren’t targeted, a mosque would be blown up, or a suicide bomber would blow up a plane, etc. A minor version of this would be “Joe Smith is a sociopath because he said this and this, therefore, let’s duly note his name.”

      • Clearwater

        The people in power who profit off of war will always have a new excuse to bomb someone. The question is how long will people buy into their war propaganda and keeping feeding the machine our children and the children of others? And how many generations will pay for the crimes of these war criminals?

  • Jan Frederiksen

    Felt like a sociopath Richard?? You are one. May Karma be gentle to you when it comes kicking your ass! And it will. Dont fool yourself by telling yourself you were just following orders Brothers and sisters. You are selfdependent free human beings with your own values and free will to Express what kind of person you want to be. Dont be mistaken, if you choose to be a person that kills a lot of your Brothers by the push of a button or any other way..well then you have become responsible for creating fear and death in this World. You must begin to realize that the World is an enclosed ecosystem and whatever you do affects the Whole and comes back to you. I hope your lessons awaiting will be clear and gentle and wish you the best of luck on your path!

    • Bob

      Gosh Jan, it’s nice to have an expert here. So glad you know so much about brainwashing and desensitizing. PTSD must have been your major. What a blessing you are to so few. Richard is not responsible for what his government made him do in the interests of making the world a better place. And your judging him will certainly come back on you. Happy Future!

      • Clearwater

        There are some very naive people in this world. Especially the ones who still believe that killing people in several different nations via drone strikes helps make the world a better place in way!Do you really not understand the fact that our grand children will still be paying the price for these unmanned missile attacks that kill thousands of children and civilians? Think about the fear and hate for America these people are sowing….

        • Kim David

          I agree America should stay out of it, unless there’s a direct threat to the country. Recent poison gas attacks on civilians in Syria put pressure on America to respond,perhaps by targeting the nerve gas supply sites with drones. However, evidence from Afghanistan and Iraq shows that at least in the short term, the factions continue to thrive and kill each other no matter what America does. They hate America if it intervenes, and they hate America if it doesn’t intervene. It’s a no win situation.

  • Fábio de Oliveira Ribeiro

    In the distant past, the soldiers were lined up in front of others, striking and getting sword blows and thrusts of spears. They saw their enemies and they were seen by them.

    In the recent past, the soldiers were hundreds of feet from their enemies firing rifles and machine guns. But eventually they were forced to kill them in single combat using bayonets. They also saw their enemies and they were seen by them.

    Now the soldier is not seen by the enemy and do not see it. What he sees is a virtual doll as those that exist in the games for X-Box and PlayStation that he plays at home.

    War has always produced psychopaths. What war produces today is cowardice, because these drone operators pee in its pants just thinking about finding an enemy of flesh and blood.

    • Clearwater

      While this is pretty on point, what you fail to mention is that one thing has remained exactly the same all through the ages. The men who start these wars never take part in the actual fighting. You know, the ones who actually profit off of them.

  • http://youtu.be/rfYBAmTW74o Web Domains

    Thanks to my father who stated to me concerning this
    weblog, this weblog is genuinely remarkable.

  • Howard Gardella

    Jesus took all of mankind with Him on the cross when He died for our sin’s, so all have died with Christ, and Righteousness is given to those who believe, for we are born of God a new creation given the right to become the son’s and daughters of God. Romans 5:1 Through faith we are Justified and have Peace with God through Christ Jesus. Jesus is the Way the Truth and the Light. Know Him

    • Linda

      Howard I agree with you. I also agree that every person has the choice to choose what is right. I know these guys go into the armed forces thinking that they will help with the freedom of this country. I truly believe they think in the beginning what they are doing is right.

      My brother and husband went into the airforce because they were forced to go in or go to jail. That to me is wrong. but our government will do anything because they are so corrupt.

      If only we could understand that we do have choices. I feel bad for the young man who did this. I will not judge him since I do not want to be judged. BE careful everyone on here. For whom you judge you will also be judged.

      We will never have peace in this world until our Almighty Lord is ruling over it as he is in Heaven. But we can be happy knowing that he is coming. WE just do not know yet the exact time.

      Until then let us all remember we are all human and we all make mistakes and right now Satan is ruling this world. If only people would understand that than we could understand why there is so much evil happening today.

  • DMW

    Brandon Bryant, I am vehemently against wars and drone wars in particular. I find them despicably cowardly. However, your courage in coming forward is exemplary and worthy of accolades. The thing is you were young, you were impressionable. Your “superiors” of course knew that and they still know these things. They are the masters of psychological tactics. Thank you for “coming out”. I am sorry you were led astray by people who know better. I’m sorry your naivete was taken advantage of. I wish you well in your new life and that you get the support you need to become the glorious human being you deserve to be. Saying sorry has so much healing power. You can always atone by doing something for mankind now. You know the world is in terrible shape and we here in the US can act as a beacon again, an admirable nation. We need your help in bringing other drone operators to relinquish what they are doing and instead use their skills to build this world not to destroy it. Thank you for finding the strength to recognize your mistakes and announce it to all. I tip my hat to you!

    • Apryl

      Brandon Thanks for serving!!!!!

    • Clearwater

      Well said.

  • Kim David

    The question of using drones is not simple. For example, if the Americans found out where the supplies for the recent gas attacks on Syrian civilians came from, and they could take the place out with a drone strike, thereby saving hundreds of lives, should they do it? And the kicker, the people running the nerve gas supply site have several Syrian families in there they are using as human shields. Another nerve gas attack is planned very soon, on a major city. Should they take the place out with drone attacks? The soldier who took the orders for the drone attacks justifiably feels very bad, and likely has PTSD, however, sometimes in war terrible decisions must be made, and someone has to carry them out.

    • Clearwater

      It actually is very simple.
      STOP BOMBING OTHER COUNTRY’S!

      • Kim David

        An excellent sentiment, Clearwater, but it doesn’t answer the question.

        • Clearwater

          Still the same answer. Stop bombing other country’s. There will always be something going on somewhere that we deem unacceptable. “Bombing the peace into them” is just nonsense. This whole age of “preemptive war” takes us backwards not forwards…

  • Armand

    Countries, That is the proper plural form of country. Country’s is possessive.

  • subvet4

    These drone operators are not soldiers, they face no danger they just kill people via the computer. As a former submarine sailor I know we can shoot torpedoes but we do so at legitimate targets and know that we can be blown out of the water ourselves. I have no respect for this man