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Going from ‘video game sniper’ to remote killer withers away who you are, drone operator turned whistleblower tells RT

Brandon Bryant served in the US military between 2006 and 2011, targeting drone strikes from the Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico. His job was to point a laser at where a Hellfire missile fired by a coworker from a Predator drone should hit. He estimates that he personally contributed to the deaths of 13 people.

After the first time he helped kill three people that he believed were innocent, he called his mother, crying. “She told me it was good that I felt bad about it, because if I felt good about it I would just be another psychopath,” he recalled.

Like many other recruits, Bryant joined the military because it was a way to get an education. He wanted to be a journalist.

He was among many young adults, who were told that their new occupation was to “kill people and break things,” he said. Drone operators are “guys and gals” fresh out of high school, who are “basically video game snipers, four months of training, put into a position to make [life and death] decisions.”

Watching people being killed, even through a monitor from over 10,000km away, comes with a cost. Bryant saw the deaths of friendly soldiers, hostiles and innocent civilians, including those whose lives he helped end.

“‘Mental degradation’ would be a proper term,” he said, explaining how operators cope with the stress. “Every shot that we took – like they’re cheering, they are congratulating each other, they are high-fiving each other.”

It’s like a withering away of who you are.

Drone wars were launched under George W. Bush, but it was Barack Obama, who ramped up its use significantly, and Bryant was part of that surge. One of the most controversial drone strikes under the Democrat president – and one that impacted Bryant a lot – happened in Yemen in 2011. It killed 16-year-old US citizen Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the son of US-Yemeni preacher and terrorist figure Anwar al-Awlaki. Also a US citizen, he was killed in a ‘signature strike’ two weeks prior.

Leaks from the US government indicated that Abdulrahman was a bystander killed in a legitimate strike targeting a senior Al-Qaeda operative. Bryant said he heard a different reasoning: “They said because they didn’t want him to become a figurehead.”

Donald Trump, who infamously once said that “you have to take out [terrorists’] families,” ratcheted up US airstrikes further during his tenure. Anwar al-Awlaki’s eight-year-old daughter was reportedly killed in a US raid weeks after he took office.

“Maybe to them it seems practical, but to me it seems…evil,” Bryant told RT.

When the drone pilot retired from the military he was suffering from PTSD, lacked a sense of identity and a purpose in life, he said. At one point, he almost took his own life with his handgun.

“The only reason I didn’t is because of [my dog]. He just wanted to go for a walk,” he said. “And I am sitting there with a gun in my hand, ready to do it, and he is like ‘dad, let’s go for a walk!

Bryant has found some solace in speaking about his experiences and criticizing the US drone war program. He spoke to RT for its special documentary project, Unheard Voices, produced for the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the many people victimized as a direct consequence of the War on Terror that followed.

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