U.S. Drone Pilot Explains What It's Like When You realise You Just Killed A Kid


NPR recently aired an amazing interview by Kelly McEvers with a former U.S. drone pilot named Brandon Bryant.

Bryant flew military drones for the U.S. from 2006 to 2010.

Bryant worked in a trailer in Nevada. And he blasted targets in the Middle East, half a world away.

This is Bryant’s description of his first “shot”:

MCEVERS: In 2006, Bryant found himself wearing a flight suit and sitting in a kind of trailer in Las Vegas, Nevada, surrounded by monitors and the low hum of computers and servers. On his very first sortie as a pilot, Brandon watched from the drone’s camera as American soldiers got blown up in Afghanistan. There was nothing he could do. That was before he’d ever taken his first so-called shot. I asked him about that.

What was one of the more – if it’s OK to talk about this – one of the more memorable moments when that – when you had to do that?

BRYANT: I’ll talk about my first shot because I still think about that.

MCEVERS: This time, it was insurgents Brandon saw on the screen – one group who had been firing at U.S. troops and another group who was standing away from them. Brandon was ordered to fire a missile at the second group.

BRYANT: We fired the missile, and 1.2 seconds after the missile fires, it sonic booms. And so the sonic boom gets there before the missile does. And the guy in the rear hears this, and he runs forward to the two guys in front and then the missile hits. And after the smoke clears, there’s a crater there. You can see body parts of the people. But the guy that was running from the rear to the front, his left leg had been taken off above the knee, and I watched him bleed out.

The blood rapidly cooled to become the same colour as the ground, because we’re watching this in infrared. And I eventually watched the guy become the same colour as the ground that he died on.

MCEVERS: Wow. So these guys had weapons strapped on their backs, but you did not see them using them, threatening to use them in any way.

BRYANT: Correct. These guys had no hostile intent. And in my own mind, I thought of, you know – in Montana, here, we have – everyone has a gun. Like, these guys could’ve been local people that had to protect themselves or something similar to that. And I think we jumped the gun, you know?

MCEVERS: Do you provide that information in any kind of follow-up reporting? You know, is there any exit interview where you report that information to your superiors?

BRYANT: There’s an after-action report, but the pilots are the ones that put it together. And the only thing that was in there was enemy combatants, confirmed weapons, all three taken out by one – by AGM-114 hellfire strike. So it doesn’t really go into very much detail other than to tell what happened and what was the result.

Brandon BryantBrandon Bryant.

That was Bryant’s first shot. His second shot left an even more indelible impression:

MCEVERS: Did you ever have to take a shot that hit someone that was clearly a civilian?

BRYANT: There was one, as actually my second shot, which was about a month after my first shot. This one was routine. We’re watching this house. And end of my shift, it’s coming close to being dawn in Vegas, and so it’s nighttime over there. And there’s very little activity. Like, every once in a while, a guy leaves the back of the house. And this guy was some sort of lieutenant of the commander of the area or something. I don’t remember.

I think there was supposedly three people left in the building and all were military males. We just aim at the corner of the building, we’re going to fire, and we do. And there’s about six seconds left before the missile impacts and something runs around the corner of the building. And it looked like a small person. There’s no other way for me to describe. It was a small two-legged person.

And the missile hits. There’s no sign of this person. A large portion of the building’s collapsed. There’s no movement coming in and out of the building. So we lock our camera on there, and I ask the screener who disseminates the video feed, I asked: Can you review that? Like, what was that thing that ran on the screen? And he’s, like, “one second–reviewing” and comes back and says: Oh, that was a dog.

MCEVERS: When you reviewed that tape, what did you see?

BRYANT: It was a person. It was a small person. Like, there’s no doubt in my mind that that was not an adult.

MCEVERS: And that was the end of your shift, so you just, like, walked out into Nevada after that, right? What did it look like? You said the sun had just come up…

BRYANT: So I was getting out. The sun was coming over the mountains off in the background. And I remember just kind of – the light was too bright, and the dark places were too dark. I felt really numb. I didn’t feel distraught like I felt my first shot. I felt numb because this is – this was the reality of war. Like, three instances in three months showed me pretty much every aspect that there is: that good guys can die, bad guys can die, and innocents can die as well.

 But Bryant didn’t quit. Until a few years later, when he realised how much he had changed.

MCEVERS: What made you finally quit? What was it?

BRYANT: One day, it was late 2010, we had a wall that had five pictures on it of top al-Qaida leaders. And I remember walking in one day, and I kind of stopped and looked at one of these guys. And I was like, man, which one of these mother (bleep) is going to die today? And I stopped myself, and I was like, that’s not me. Like, that’s just not who I am. I don’t think like that. I was taught to respect life, even if in the realities of war that we have to take it, it should be done with respect. And I wanted this guy to die.

So I tried to talk to a couple of people about it. And one of the weird things about the whole drone community is that you don’t talk about anything that you’ve done. You just don’t. So I just shut up and didn’t talk to anyone about how I was feeling or how I was doing.

MCEVERS: So you quit.

BRYANT: Yeah. I just – I couldn’t do it anymore.

Bryant lives in Montana now. He’s going to college on the G.I. bill. Otherwise, things aren’t going that well for him. He has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He doesn’t have a place to live. He just stays with friends.

You can listen to Kelly McEvers’ interview and read the full transcript here >

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