7 Jun 2013

Collateral damage: why US drone operators risk PTSD

One minute they are in the house with the family and perhaps the children. An hour later they are in the silence of a plush, air-conditioned “cockpit” in a nearby military base. A two-person drone flight-control team receives data, co-ordinates on the people who will be targeted on this shift for death, because the USA says so, half a world away in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Yemen.

They may be armed fighters. They may, in fact, be entirely innocent. It is the ultimate in remote killing via the missiles of Reaper or Predator unmanned drones. Then the operators will do the BDA – battle damage asessment – and the camera images get in close. They see the bodies. They see the pieces of bodies. They see the people struggling for life. They see them bleeding out. The heat sensor will show the hot blood-pool against the cooling, dying, human body.

In an illuminating interview, NBC Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel has spoken to former air force drone operator Brandon Bryant, 27. He says he was involved in over 1,600 deaths-by-drone and is haunted by what he did, diagnosed with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) even though he was thousands of miles from the killing he committed.

His job was operating the camera. One day they were ordered to target three men, armed – as most men are in rural areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and they were five miles from the nearest US forces. They fired missiles at the men. He watched the thermal images of the growing blood-pools –

“The guy was running forward, He’s missing his right leg. And I watched this guy bleed out and. I mean, the blood is hot.” He watched the man’s body cool into death and become the same colour-match as the surrounding ground.

“Like, this isn’t a video game. This isn’t some sort of fantasy. This is war. People die. You don’t feel the aircraft turn. You don’t feel the hum of the engine. You hear the hum of the computers, but that’s definitely not the same.”

The disconnect of what many cannot help but feel to be a particularly cowardly way of killing people by stealth, is clearly not without psychological cost. And he is not alone in paying a price in terms of PTSD for which he is receiving counselling.

“People say that drone strikes are like mortar attacks. Well artillery doesn’t see the results of their actions. It’s really more intimate for us, because we see everything.”

Towards the end of his stint as a drone operator he was approached by his commanding officer. He presented him with a certificate tallying the numbers of people who had died as a result of his work: 1626. He was supposed to treasure this, feel good about it –

“I would’ve been happy if they never even showed me the piece of paper. I’ve seen American soldiers die, innocent people die, and insurgents die. And it’s not pretty. It’s not something that I want to have – this diploma.”

What he does have, to go with the diploma are sleeplessness, bouts of unexplained anger and binge drinking episodes – classic PTSD symptoms.

The real victims of the ever-expanding US drone operations are, of course, the innocents killed and recently disclosed classified CIA evidence underlines their number is large. And the Pentagon recognises that their “target-selection” is seriously remiss in several respects. The wider effect of all this in constantly producing visceral hatred of the west in these parts of the world is another major unquantifiable effect – but as we see, there are problems right back home in the USA.

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