Skip to main content

Report: Former drone operator shares his inner torment

By Jethro Mullen, CNN
October 25, 2013 -- Updated 0719 GMT (1519 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: The Pakistani Prime Minister says he raised the issue of drones in talks with Obama
  • In a magazine interview, a former drone operator describes the grisly scenes he witnessed
  • His job was to aim the targeting laser for drones from a control station in the U.S.
  • After leaving the Air Force, he says he suffered from post traumatic stress disorder

(CNN) -- Years of aiming missiles at people on the other side of the world left Brandon Bryant a broken man.

In an interview with the magazine GQ, Bryant recounts some of the grisly scenes he watched unfold on his monitor as an Air Force drone operator.

In grimly vivid detail, he talks about the first time he killed somebody, in early 2007.

He was sitting in a control station on an Air Force base in Nevada. His three victims were walking on a dirt road in Afghanistan.

U.S. drone strikes condemned
U.S. drone strikes may be 'war crimes'
Why have drones killed civilians?
CNN Explains: Drones

After the Hellfire missile fired from the drone struck the three men, Bryant watched the aftermath on his infrared display.

"The smoke clears, and there's pieces of the two guys around the crater. And there's this guy over here, and he's missing his right leg above his knee," he says in the article in the November issue of GQ.

"He's holding it, and he's rolling around, and the blood is squirting out of his leg, and it's hitting the ground, and it's hot. His blood is hot," Bryant says. "But when it hits the ground, it starts to cool off; the pool cools fast. It took him a long time to die. I just watched him. I watched him become the same color as the ground he was lying on."

Drone program in spotlight

Bryant, 27, has talked about his experiences before -- to the German magazine Der Spiegel and to the U.S. broadcaster NBC. But the publication of his interview with GQ comes amid renewed questions about the human cost and the legality of the U.S. drone program.

U.S. officials say the program is a vital tool in the fight against militant groups such as al Qaeda.

But two international human rights groups raised serious concerns Tuesday about the consequences of drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, suggesting some attacks in recent years might amount to war crimes.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch released reports giving detailed accounts of a number of attacks they say the United States carried out in each of the two countries, resulting in the deaths of scores of civilians.

The reports drew from extensive field research -- including interviews with witnesses and relatives of victims -- and called for a series of measures to bring the program in line with international law.

Leaders to meet

The White House on Tuesday disputed the reports' assertions that drone strikes had broken the law.

But the situation was made all the more awkward by the presence in Washington of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who held talks with U.S. President Barack Obama on Wednesday.

After the meeting, Sharif said he had raised the issue of drones with Obama, "emphasizing the need for an end to such strikes."

In remarks a day earlier at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, Sharif outlined some of the Pakistani government's objections to the drone program.

"Recently our political parties in a national conference declared the use of drones is not only a continued violation of our territorial integrity but also detrimental to our resolve at efforts in eliminating terrorism from our country," he said.

'Zombie mode'

Bryant's interview gives a different perspective on the drone program.

The GQ article provides a detailed study of his time as a drone operative, his decision in 2011 to quit and the post-traumatic stress disorder that followed.

Bryant says that during his time monitoring drones' cameras and aiming its laser targeting system, he became numb and carried out the job in "zombie mode."

When he left the Air Force in the spring of 2011 -- after nearly six years -- he says he turned down a $109,000 bonus to continue operating the drones.

He was given a document totaling the number of people killed in missions in which he'd participated in some form during close to 6,000 hours of flight time.

The overall number of 1,626, he says, "made me sick to my stomach."

A 'critical' role

Looking back, he tells GQ, he would feel "horrible" living under a sky in which drones hover, watching and sometimes killing.

But he says that when he started the job, he believed that the remotely piloted aircraft could help save lives.

The U.S. Defense Department has repeatedly argued that they prevent the deaths of American soldiers and protect the nation from terrorism.

Bryant talks of efforts by drone crews to help U.S. troops avoid harm and of atrocities he saw committed by militants.

He says he watched on his screen as an insurgent commander pulled two girls out of the trunk of his vehicle in a crowded marketplace in Iraq.

"They were bound and gagged," Bryant tells the magazine. "He put them down on their knees, executed them in the middle of the street, and left them there. People just watched it and didn't do anything."

A fleeting figure

Regarding fears of civilian casualties, he describes an occasion in 2007 when he saw a figure running toward a building in Afghanistan seconds before the impact of a missile he had aimed at it. The small shape looked to him like that of a child.

He says he and a colleague asked an intelligence observer on the mission about it.

The response? "Per the review, it's a dog."

Bryant says he was sure it wasn't a dog. In the end, he says, the report of the strike mentioned neither a dog nor a child.

His life after leaving the program was plagued by drinking and depression. Like many other drone operators, he was diagnosed with PTSD.

He said he decided to speak out about his experience -- a decision that has earned him a great deal of vitriol from some of his former colleagues -- to show that drone crews' involvement in war is "more than just a video game."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Sky gazers caught a glimpse of the "blood moon" crossing the Earth's shadow Tuesday in all its splendor.
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1624 GMT (0024 HKT)
Oscar Pistorius didn't consciously pull the trigger the night he shot and killed his girlfriend, the sprinter testified at his murder trial.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 2116 GMT (0516 HKT)
Officials are launching their next option: an underwater vehicle to scan the ocean floor.
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1254 GMT (2054 HKT)
A mysterious new artwork has appeared in Cheltenham, where Britain's version of the NSA is located.
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Like many parents across Liverpool, the McManamans waited. 25 years ago, it was all they could do.
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1324 GMT (2124 HKT)
The Maltese Falcon makes a swift turn while at sea.
How do you design a superyacht fit for the billionaire who has everything money can buy?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1548 GMT (2348 HKT)
Pop art condoms in Kenya
Packaging can change how people see things. And when it comes to sex, it could maybe help save lives too.
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1542 GMT (2342 HKT)
mediterranean monk seal
Africa is home to much unique wildlife, but many of its iconic species are threatened.
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1509 GMT (2309 HKT)
A staff stands next to the propellers of Sun-powered plane Solar Impulse 2 HB-SIB seen in silhouette during its first exit for test on April 14, 2014 in Payerne, a year ahead of their planned round-the-world flight. Solar Impulse 2 is the successor of the original plane of the same name, which last year completed a trip across the United States without using a drop of fuel. AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)
This solar-powered aircraft will attempt to circle the globe next year.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins.
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1714 GMT (0114 HKT)
... not in Italy. In fact, it's thousands of miles away.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 0043 GMT (0843 HKT)
Ebola victims usually come from remote areas -- but now the lethal virus is in a city of two million.
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1340 GMT (2140 HKT)
Browse through images you don't always see on news reports from CNN teams around the world.
ADVERTISEMENT