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“Did We Just Kill a Kid?”: Drone Operator Who Killed Afghan Child Can't Sleep After Waging War Miles Away

The German publication Der Spiegel shines light on how drones are having an effect on the soldiers back home controlling them.

Photo Credit: Gwoeii/

The human costs of the drone war the Obama administration has escalated are rarely talked about. Hundreds of civilians have been killed in Pakistan and Yemen by U.S. drone strikes. Now, a report in a German publication is shining a light on how drones are having an effect on the humans back home controlling the unmanned aerial vehicles--though the suffering of soldiers in comfortable locales pales in comparison to the suffering inflicted on civilians in Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan.

Der Spiegel, a leading German news magazine, has published an extensive report that looks into the American soldiers operating drones. The reporter, Nicola Abe, traveled across the U.S. to profile a few of the soldiers heavily involved in operating drones. The Der Spiegel reporter focuses a lot on a soldier named Brandon Bryant, who controls drones flying over Afghanistan from the U.S.

Bryant “worked in an oblong, windowless container about the size of a trailer, where the air-conditioning was kept at 17 degrees Celsius (63 degrees Fahrenheit) and, for security reasons, the door couldn't be opened,” the magazine writes. It was there that Bryant carried out a drone strike responsible for the death of a child--an incident that haunted him.

After the strike landed and killed a child, one pilot said: “Did we just kill a kid?” Another responded: “Yeah, I guess that was a kid.”

Bryant told Der Spiegel he completed over 6,000 hours of flight from his base in New Mexico. “I saw men, women and children die during that time,” he says. “I never thought I would kill that many people. In fact, I thought I couldn't kill anyone at all."

After clocking in all those hours, the drone killings started to affect Bryant personally. The first time he hit the button to fire a missile that struck halfway around the world, Bryant said he “felt disconnected from humanity for almost a week.” Now, “he can't sit in one place for very long anymore”--it makes him nervous. His girlfriend broke up with him. He’s also having trouble sleeping.

Another soldier they profile is Vanessa Meyer, though that’s not her real name. Another drone operator, Meyer doesn’t have any remorse or bad feelings about her time conducting drone strikes. “When the decision had been made, and they saw that this was an enemy, a hostile person, a legal target that was worthy of being destroyed, I had no problem with taking the shot,” said Meyer.

Der Spiegel also highlights the jarring disconnect when someone wages a war thousands of miles away by remote control. “When Bryant left the container that day, he stepped directly into America: dry grasslands stretching to the horizon, fields and the smell of liquid manure. Every few seconds, a light on the radar tower at the Cannon Air Force Base flashed in the twilight. There was no war going on there,” the publication writes.

But others in the military are strong supporters of the drone program. Drones “save lives,” said Colonel William Tart, the former head of drone operations at a base in Nevada. He touted their success in Libya, in doing humanitarian work in Haiti and in saving soldiers in Afghanistan.

That’s cold comfort for Bryant. The feature ends by looking at why Bryant left the Air Force. “On uneventful days in the cockpit, he would write in his diary, jotting down lines like: ‘On the battlefield there are no sides, just bloodshed. Total war. Every horror witnessed. I wish my eyes would rot.’” He didn’t enjoy seeing his friends any longer, talked back to superior officers and, during one day, “collapsed at work, doubling over and spitting blood. The doctor told him to stay home, and ordered him not to return to work until he could sleep more than four hours a night for two weeks in a row.”

Bryant was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress-disorder.


Alex Kane is AlterNet's New York-based World editor, and an assistant editor for Mondoweiss. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.


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