‘I killed a child’: Soldier's drone horror
TRIGGER WARNING: This story contains graphic content including PTSD related to combat. If you or anyone you know needs to talk, help numbers are listed at the bottom of this article.
Brandon Bryant watched in horror as a small child darted on to the infra-red display in front of him. Milliseconds later a bright flash obliterated everything on the screen.
It was February 2007, and the US Airman had just fired a laser-guided supersonic bomb from his Predator drone aimed at a building in Afghanistan from his control station in Las Vegas, 12,000km away.
He was taking out an enemy combatant believed to be inside, but at the last minute he saw a little child run into his crosshairs - the focus point of his drone lens - just as the Hellfire missile hit.
It's an image which has haunted him ever since, even though his Air Force superiors insisted the child was actually a dog.
Thirteen years on from that mission, the same type of missile Mr Bryant fired was used to assassinate Iranian general Qasem Soleimani while on a trip to Baghdad in January, ratcheting up tensions in the Middle East.
Drones have become the defining weapon of war in the 21st century, with demand for the killing machines ferociously increasing.
But finding enough people to command the unmanned airborne terminators can be difficult - a pilot shortage is believed to be a problem with the RAF's planned £1.1 billion ($2.1 billion) Protector drone program, The Times reports.
That's partly because drone operators have been found to suffer higher levels of "psychological distress" than other military groups.
And Mr Bryant knows about the horror of the job better than most - when he left the Air Force in 2011, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Now he publicly denounces what he did during his time commanding drones, and he was furious to see them used in the killing of Soleimani.
"We have not learned the lessons of the past," Mr Bryant tells Sun Online.
"We're still doing things not like the Nazis, but worse than the Nazis, because we should know better."
Here, he shares his hellish story of raining death and destruction from the heavens.
Mr Bryant was a "sensor", meaning he acted as the drone's eyes, controlling its multiple camera systems and being responsible for targeting its weapons alongside a pilot who directed navigation.
He still remembers his first attack on three men in Afghanistan.
Two of the men were torn apart and killed instantly - the third was still alive, his right leg blown off above the knee.
"I saw the blood squirt out of his leg," Mr Bryant says. "Then I watched him cool down."
On his thermal imaging display, he watched his dismembered victim die a horrible, agonising death, his body slowly fading from warm white to cold black in the infra-red feed as the blood drained from his body.
The moment the missile hit, a member of Mr Bryant's squadron gleefully shouted: "SPLASH!"
His cackling colleague proudly declared: "Bryant's popped his cherry!" But Mr Bryant wasn't laughing.
"That image on the screen is still in my head," Mr Bryant tells Sun Online. "Whenever I think about it, it still hurts me."
And he couldn't look away - Mr Bryant was ordered to keep his eyes on the grisly scene in case anyone came to pick up the bodies.
Despite the thousands of miles between where he was sitting and where his victims lay, he felt their deaths closely.
"When I pulled the trigger, I knew that it was wrong," Mr Bryant said. "When the missile struck I knew in my soul I had become a murderer."
'THAT'S DEFINITELY A F***ING KID'
But it was the image of the child on his screen that haunts him the most.
"I was not having a good day," Mr Bryant said. "I prayed they weren't going to shoot - I was still struggling with my last shot."
On his shift, his Predator drone loitered in the Afghan night sky, its weapons aimed at a quiet farming compound thousands of feet below.
Mr Bryant was watching the scene which looked completely deserted save for a few animals, but he'd been told an important target was inside.
Mr Bryant wasn't informed who this person was or why they were being targeted - all he knew was that it was his job to keep a laser aimed on the main building to guide the $US95,000 Hellfire missile when it was time.
His orders to shoot came into his headset from another person, the "joint terminal attack controller" or "JTAC".
And sure enough, this order came.
Once the missile rockets off from the drone wing, Mr Bryant's job was to zoom in on to the smallest possible target so that his laser could guide the missile more accurately.
He was zoomed in so far, in fact, that he couldn't see anything around his tiny frame of view of the house - which something suddenly rushed into.
"At about the six second mark, a child runs into the picture and tries to go into the building," Mr Bryant says.
He thinks the child had probably heard the incoming missile and tried to take shelter - only to be blown apart moments later.
In a panic, Mr Bryant asked if anyone else watching the shot saw the child just before the missile hit.
His "screener", an image analyst who watched the drone video feed and communicated with Mr Bryant via a chat program, told him the figure was a dog.
But Mr Bryant didn't think so. He asked the pilot sitting next to him if it looked like a person to him.
"He was like, 'Yeah, whatever, probably'. He didn't give a s**t," Mr Bryant said.
"After the shift I took the tapes and I reviewed them and I was like, 'Yeah that's a definitely a f***ing kid.'
"I went to my supervisor and he went, 'It's a f***ing dog, just drop it.'"
'YOUR JOB IS TO KILL PEOPLE'
Mr Bryant never actually wanted to be a drone operator - he'd planned to become a survival expert when he joined the Air Force but he was pushed to the then-experimental drone program because his aptitude tests indicated he'd be suited to the role.
When he arrived in his posting, he had no idea what he was in for.
"They put us in a movie theatre," Mr Bryant says.
"They played a montage video of a series of drone strikes played to Metallica's One. It was pretty brutal.
"Then one of the sergeants walks down the middle aisle and says: 'Your job is to kill people and break things.'
"He tried to make it sound cool."
Mr Bryant immediately tried to get out - only to be told by his commander: "do your f***ing job".
And the job itself wasn't just psychologically taxing because of the responsibility of killing.
"One of the reasons why it's really hard to retain people in this career field is that no one wants to sit there staring at a black and white screen all day," Mr Bryant says, referring to the gruelling 10 and 12-hour shifts that drone operators have to stay alert for.
"It hurts your eyes, it hurts your head, it f**ks with your sleep."
Sleep disruption was such a problem in drone squadrons when Mr Bryant served that operators could ask to be given "go pills" and "no-go pills" - powerful drugs to either wake you up or put you to sleep.
And the pills could have strange consequences - Mr Bryant says he and a friend once loudly heard a fellow drone operator having a furious argument with someone on the phone in his bedroom.
They were concerned because they knew he'd taken no-go pills and might not be completely in control, so they went to check on him.
"But when we go in there," Mr Bryant says, "He was arguing with his pants. He was yelling at them."
SHADOW PUPPET MURDER
Even when Mr Bryant wasn't the one pulling the trigger, life as a drone operator watching a constant feed of war zones meant witnessing all kinds of atrocities.
On one occasion, Mr Bryant was tracking enemy combatants driving as they headed to a remote copse of trees.
There, they started digging a hole in the ground - everyone in the drone squadron assumed they were retrieving a weapons stash.
"When they finish digging, they open up the trunk of their car, and there's a man in the trunk," Mr Bryant says.
"They pull out the dude and put him in the hole on his knees."
Mr Bryant watched the prisoner shake his head and plead with his captors as the driver of the car gestured angrily at him.
"All of a sudden he starts struggling, shaking back and forth, and he tries to stand up," Mr Bryant says.
"The driver pulls out a pistol, shoots the man in the head, and then takes out a machete and chops the head off."
They then took the decapitated head and threw it into the main square of a nearby village that'd refused to help them side against the Americans.
"We watched it all," Mr Bryant says. "It's like watching shadow puppets, but we saw the whole thing in heat signatures."
RIDICULED BY BROTHERS IN ARMS
By 2011, nearly six years after he'd joined, Mr Bryant was desperate to leave the drones behind.
"The moment that I took that first shot I wanted to get out," he said. "I hated the military. I hated the Air Force. I hated the drones.
"I hated the people that I served with. It left a really bitter taste in my mouth.
"Everyone kept thanking me for my service and saying it was so cool that I was an operator, but I knew the truth."
While civilians were polite, the attitude towards drone operators inside the armed forces was scathing.
They were mocked as being the "Chair Force", and even members of Mr Bryant's drone squadron jokingly called themselves "stick monkeys" because of the sedate work.
But what Mr Bryant had done during his time operating drones was no joke.
When he finally made the decision to leave, he was handed a statistical summary of his operations.
Mr Bryant already knew from that he had personally killed 13 people - but he didn't know the extent of all the kills from the missions his squadron was involved in.
He could scarcely believe it when he saw the number: 1626.
The same year he left he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder - a severe anxiety disorder brought on in the aftermath of extremely distressing events.
It's easy to see how boots-on-the-ground soldiers can develop PTSD, being so close to truly nightmarish bloodshed.
But Mr Bryant found many people didn't understand how someone like him, who killed from afar, could be traumatised.
He even says some people mocked him when he first spoke out about his condition saying they'd played video games and it "made them feel bad".
But being a drone operator is not a game.
A 2019 study of US drone operators found around 6 per cent were suffering PTSD symptoms - the most common of which included difficulty sleeping and avoiding memories related to a stressful experience.
But despite his condition, Mr Bryant still felt duty-bound to serve his country and, incredibly, he decided to rejoin the Air Force in 2012, this time as a member of the reserves.
"I went back into the military because I wanted to be proud of my service," Mr Bryant explains.
His intention was to become an instructor in the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) program, which teaches downed airmen how to survive behind enemy lines.
Mr Bryant was done with killing and wanted to help save people - but a horrific training exercise accident crushed his dream.
A log was dropped on his head, fracturing his skull in two places and damaging his spine.
Unaware of how badly he was injured, he valiantly continued training for another six days before passing out in the field.
Mr Bryant was rushed to hospital where he developed sepsis - potentially life-threatening blood poisoning - and he went into shock.
As doctors battled to save his life, he experienced a deeply disturbing hallucination.
"The 13 people I killed were standing around my bed, waiting for me," he says. "I saw them as infra-red ghosts.
"I didn't meet God. I didn't see heaven or hell, angels or demons, anything like that. I just met the people that I had murdered."
When he recovered, he felt that if he was ever going to meet them again, he wanted to be able to say he did something to honour their memory.
In the years since his complete departure from the military, Mr Bryant has been an outspoken whistleblower about the US military's use of drones, testifying before the United Nations about America's overseas drone operations.
In doing so, he's become a hate figure among certain groups of US veterans and, Mr Bryant claims, among powerful organisations.
He once received a call from someone who told him they were from the FBI to tell him he was in danger - but he dismissed the warning.
Another time, while he was in Germany testifying before a parliamentary committee about Germany's role in the US drone program, someone from the Air Force Office of Special Investigations went to the home of his mum, schoolteacher LanAnn Bryant, in Montana.
"They told her that if I didn't stop speaking then ISIS was going to hurt her," Mr Bryant says.
She called him up in tears saying she was scared, but resolved: "If you're doing the right thing then you must continue."
The Air Force Office of Special Investigations has previously denied it was attempting to intimidate a whistleblower, and says that it was actually trying to protect LanAnn.
'I GOT ANGRY'
Nowadays, Mr Bryant lives a quiet life back in his hometown of Missoula, Montana.
Although his drone operating days are long gone, he's often painfully reminded of them - with the drone assassination of Qasem Soleimani in January serving up a stark example of how drones are still at the bleeding edge of warfare.
Soleimani's killing was extremely controversial - but Mr Bryant knows exactly how he feels about it, having spoken out against such operations for nearly a decade now.
"When I first read about Soleimani, I was like 'No way, they couldn't be this stupid'. I got angry.
"Nothing has changed, they didn't listen.
"If Trump was the one that gave this order, I'm going to say that was an unlawful order."
Mr Bryant is also calling out to people who are working in drone squadrons around the world to think about what they're being asked to do.
"We think about the Nuremberg Trials," he says, referring to the court cases against Nazis after the Second World War.
"All these guys that got convicted during the trials, the one thing that convicted them all was, 'Well I was just doing my job.'
"We have not learned the lessons of the past. We're still doing things not like the Nazis, but worse than the Nazis, because we should know better."
This article originally appeared on The Sun and was reproduced with permission