“Did we just kill a kid?!”: The Woes of a Drone Operator

Spiegel Online is currently running the story of Brandon Bryant, a drone operator of 6 years in the U.S. Air Force.

Bryant, drone pilotCentral to the story is an incident that took place in Afghanistan. From his Nevada “cockpit”, he launched a Hellfire missile at what turned out to be a young child. Ominously, after realizing his mistake and confirming it with his co-pilot, a window popped up on a screen from “higher up” informing him the target neutralized was a dog, not a child.

Due to the SATCOM data link between operator and drone, there is a significant delay between “reality” and “screen”, and up to 16 seconds of delay between pressing the trigger and the missile hitting the ground.

After giving the order to strike a building in a village between Baghlan and Mazar-e-Shari, there was nobody else in the perimeter; Bryant waited, counting every pixel on the screen. With seven seconds remaining, Bryant could still divert the missile by painting the laser at another target.

With three seconds to go, a child walked in around from the corner.

Bryant saw a flash on the screen: the explosion. Parts of the building collapsed. The child had disappeared. Bryant had a sick feeling in his stomach.

“Did we just kill a kid?” he asked the man sitting next to him.

“Yeah, I guess that was a kid,” the pilot replied.

“Was that a kid?” they wrote into a chat window on the monitor.

Then, someone they didn’t know answered, someone sitting in a military command center somewhere in the world who had observed their attack. ”

No. That was a dog,” the person wrote.

Bryant, who completed 6,000 flight hours during his 6-year stint at the Air Force “saw men, women and children die during that time”. The pilot added “I never thought I would kill that many people. In fact, I thought I couldn’t kill anyone at all”.

He observed people for weeks at a time, including Taliban fighters, and became very intimately involved in their daily lives: “I got to know them. Until someone higher up in the chain of command gave me the order to shoot”. He felt remorse, too: “They were good daddies”.

On more mundane days, Bryant wrote in his diary, scribing lines like this: “On the battlefield there are no sides, just bloodshed. Total war. Every horror witnessed. I wish my eyes would rot.” Doctors at the Veterans’ Administration diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder.

And why is he no longer with the Air Force? There was one day Bryant knew he could no longer renew his next contract. It was the same day he walked into the cockpit and caught himself saying to his coworkers: “Hey, what motherfucker is going to die today?”

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