A Sensor, Darkly

Bryant, who was named the 2015 Whistleblower of the Year by the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms, is an air force veteran. His memoir originally appeared in Life in the Age of Drone Warfare, which will be published next month by Duke University Press. The essay collection was edited by Lisa Parks and Caren Kaplan.

An audio version of this essay is available to subscribers, provided by curio.io.

My work as a sensor operator was mostly dark and boring. It was the kind of quiet work that suffocates the soul, body, and mind. There was not one day that I ever enjoyed the experience. I was proud that I was good at it, but I never enjoyed it.

I trained and worked as a sensor operator nearly continuously from April 12, 2006 to April 17, 2011, when I was honorably discharged with eighty-three days of allowed terminal leave.

Training was pretty inconsequential. For me it was weird and confusing. It started on April 12, 2006, with a montage video of strikes that had happened over the past year; some sort of pseudo-“I’m a badass” music played in the background. I had to do a ton of simulations simply to figure out the completely irrational menu keys.

I sabotaged myself twice because I got cold feet when thinking whether I could actually do the job. The military used intimidation tactics to keep me doing my job, namely, humiliation and ridicule, which I will address later. Training didn’t really provide the ability to practice the basic skill set needed but provided the routine and methods to use. We would be told during training that being a sensor operator was an art form and not a science. Through all of that, I excelled and struggled with convincing myself that it was all justified and my intuition was wrong.

The container that I worked from was called a ground control station, or GCS. It is similar in size to a Formula One Racecar trailer, with processing computers on one long wall and the operator stations at the far end. There are fourteen monitors, two shared in the center detailing the pilot low side and mission coordinator low side screens. The central monitors on each station show the video camera feeds as controlled by the sensor operator or the nose camera for the pilot in weather situations.

As a sensor operator, it was my task to control the multispectral targeting system to provide the best picture possible for our intelligence analysts while being cognitively aware of all the activity going on, back up the pilot as a copilot—who is unqualified to fly the aircraft but has in-depth knowledge on how to fly—and be able to guide munitions to target locations. If none of that was going on, I just sat there and read: novels, occasionally my old Kindle, or a graphic novel. One person even made games on Excel spreadsheets for us to play during lulls in mission time. Leadership, of course, hated anything to do with sanity.

While I was doing the work itself, I was mostly bored with life but fascinated by the activity I saw. Day in and day out I would be doing the same thing but seeing a wide variety of activities—a dualism that has probably never existed in our culture on this scale of life and death. It is almost enough to drive people mad.

My personal life was filled with mostly depression and loneliness. I had so many questions about what was happening, and all my leadership would do is tell me to shut up, stop asking questions. I couldn’t talk about this with any of my peers; the responses would be either that I was “too emotional” or that “God will work everything out.” It was incredibly heartbreaking to be left alone in the dark.

I sometimes felt like I was the eyes of the mission: picking up what we saw, acting on instinct, hunting people down, watching them live their lives like a Predator in the sky. It was exhilarating when we were actually doing something, when we were studying our human targets. But the exhilaration doesn’t hide the discomfort, and when you’re finally alone with your thoughts before bedtime you feel a bit of your soul crumble to dust.

While I did have doubts with how my life started in the military, I had sworn an oath. But in February 2012 I found out that I was violating this oath by hunting down Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen who was also an imam for radical interpretations of Islam. I came in that day in February to see the flight operations supervisor looking disturbed and very pale.

I asked him what was up, and he told me that he had just gotten off the phone with some very higher-ups, who told him that we will now be flying armed over Yemen, and if we have the ability to take out al-Awlaki, President Obama himself would call the crew to give the order. I asked him why he was upset. He explained to me that it was a direct violation to assassinate American citizens and that they deserved a fair and free trial in front of a jury of their peers.

For a second after that conversation, I felt the thrill of being the sensor that took this guy out. I thought about how it would finally legitimize my place in the community. And then, just as suddenly, I felt a weird sort of vertigo, a stretching of my reality, and I remembered why I wanted to get out of the community in the first place: too much sickness, and my soul was too sick to stay in that filth. 

Quite a few people compare flying drones to playing video games and actually make fun of operators for it. When I had first starting talking about my experiences, people would send me messages about how they also played video games and it made them feel bad. Those were the mildest of them. While the skill set is very similar—the ability to be aware of multiple things at once while focusing on a single task—the comparison with games completely misses the point.

Being a sensor operator was nothing like a first-person shooter. It was more like if a real-time strategy game had a baby with The Sims. And for me, the disconnect wasn’t from our targets but with myself. 

Another frequent comparison was with being an American sniper. But being a drone operator is what happens when you take somebody who should be highly-trained like a sniper, mass-produce him, and make it a lot easier to get essentially the same results. You take away the pride and honor, give the operators a false sense of superiority and importance, and then claim that they are essential to the war effort—essentially, a recipe for disaster.

What we see is vastly different from what a sniper sees. We usually viewed everything in infrared, as that gives us the best clarity, although sometimes we switched to what we call the “day TV” camera. The quality was pretty low, but we could manage to see things like color of the clothing, markings on vehicles, buildings, et cetera. Eventually we got a software update that allowed us to blend both infrared and day TV, which also gave us access to the low-light camera. With that, we were able to see things like if lights were on in a building or if a car was driving around without its lights.

There are a few incidents that stick out to me from this time. The first was when I saw an American convoy hit an improvised explosive device on my first mission. I had felt like a total failure. The burning wreckage, the screaming over the radio for backup, the frantic infrared activity on the screen while I was on the opposite side of the world allowing everyone to observe the tragedy of war: the men and women you fight with will die.

The second event was the first time that I killed anyone. I was lonely, tired. I started having trouble sleeping after that first mission. I didn’t want to be a failure. I was angry that the people I had been tasked to protect were killed by an unknown enemy. I wanted vengeance. I was a fool. When the flight operations supervisor told me I was going to shoot, I put up a half-hearted objection. My pain was at war with my conscience. I wasn’t sure I could do it, but I did it anyway.

Getting into the ground control system was surreal. I can remember every moment like it was being recorded by my body. It’s probably one of the few memories I have that I’m not sure I’ve ever wanted to keep. The sun was pale, the wind blowing like it was straight out of hell, with enough sand to get into uncomfortable places. It was hot for a January late afternoon. The inside of the GCS was cold, arctic even, and the only lights inside were from the multitude of computer monitors on the other side of the trailer.

There were five men on top of a hill underneath a single tree shooting down the north face at a convoy of American troops. We were waiting for clearance when they decided that two F-16s would be the ones to drop bombs on this target. The Hell Fire missile didn’t have a large enough splash radius to get the desired weapons effect. The fighters had seen three individuals walking north by northwest road about ten kilometers away, and they wanted us to put eyes on the coordinates.

We found two of them arguing with each other and the third seemingly terrified while looking up at the sky. He heard the bombs drop. He lagged behind slightly. We were given the confirmation that they had weapons and then given the 9-line with the cleared “Hot.” I was told to place the crosshairs at the feet of the two individuals in the front—better to get two than miss.

The missile left the rail with 16 seconds of flight time. At 1.2 seconds after ring, the missile hit the speed of sound and, due to the loss of kinetic energy, the sonic boom hit the target roughly four to eight seconds before impact. The man in the back heard the boom and ran forward. The missile impacted right when he reached the front two. I had killed with the push of a button—four clicks, to be precise. Life became cheap.

When the smoke cleared, the man who had run to the other two was rolling on the ground, clutching his leg in desperation, and I watched his life’s blood spurt out to the rhythm of his heart. It was January in the mountains of Afghanistan. The blood cooled. He stopped moving, eventually losing enough body heat to become indistinguishable from the ground on which he died. 

“No one is coming to pick up the body parts,” our customer said over chat. “Prepare for new target.” I don’t know how much longer the day was. I was in shock. People congratulated each other in the debriefing. Two people who were not involved at all gave one another a high-five. One pilot made the remark that I had “popped my cherry.” The only thing I could think of was that I’d wounded my soul, violated a core belief for—now that I think back on it, I’m not sure what. I can no longer justify it to myself. But somehow I did, and it was slowly killing me, like a poison administered every day carefully enough to not be noticed by the victim. And I was damned. I learned the second lesson: nothing can protect your own soul from doing harm to another. Only the living suffer in war, mostly those who fight it. 

Those instances happened within the first three months of active missions. I had taken a total of five shots, four that killed thirteen people, ten of whom I am unsure of their active role in our “war.” It would be nearly four years after the start of my deployment to Iraq that I would get out. I had plenty of time to beat myself up over everything and plenty of excuses to continue to do so. 

When I finally left, I didn’t care about what anyone thought. The program was a diseased thing. Everyone knew that I was at the end of my rope. I was going to leave and never look back. Or so I had thought. 

April 17, 2011, was my last day in the 3rd Special Operations Squadron. As I was saying good-bye to the people I had once called my brothers and sisters in arms, one of the lieutenants gave me a parting certificate. It associated me with the deaths of over 1,626 individuals. All I could think about was the quote from Robert Oppenheimer after witnessing the drop of the atomic bomb: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

I had once thought that I could leave with my thirteen dead: the thirteen who kept me from sleeping, who assaulted my psyche in my modes of consciousness. They became legion. I thought back to all the missions I had witnessed. I couldn’t believe the numbers. I felt like my soul had fled. But I was still there. I hoped that I could still make things right.

I ended up in the U.S. Air Force Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape program. With my terrible experience in the drone program, I had to leave my service with good skills and the feeling that I had actually served my country honorably. I had to wash off the filth that had anything to do with “drones.” A year and a half later found me in Texas going through indoctrination after over four years of intense preparation. I had dreamed of this job since I joined. It was the one I had originally signed up to be. I fought to be there.

Within a few short weeks, my dreams (and my body) were shattered in a training accident. I had wanted the position so badly that I convinced everyone to let me continue training—broken face, injured spine, and more. It was the single most physically painful experience in my entire life. It paled in comparison to the emotional and psychic pain I had been feeling. I told myself that I would complete it no matter what or die trying. I had nothing else.

I only lasted six more days before I collapsed on the death truck march. My team had been beautifully supportive of me the whole time. They wanted me to succeed because they saw how badly I wanted it. And I had hoped to keep encouraging them to push forth and conquer. I remember arguing with one of the cadre members, then all of a sudden feeling extremely light-headed. I was only out for a few seconds of eternity. I woke up with the same cadre member standing over me with a concerned look on his face. I kept my eyes tightly shut because I couldn’t believe my fate, didn’t want to believe it was possible. 

In the hospital, my dead stood in judgment of me in my nightmares. I was mocked and condemned for my actions by the legion crowd. My punishment was to live with what I had done, to die a broken man without dreams. In my last true moment of clarity before the pain and drugs swept me away into the terror of the voice, I pled for a chance to make things right. 

That October, Der Spiegel’s Nicola Abé contacted me for an interview to get some answers about the drone program. I told her I was willing to tell her whatever it is she wanted to know. Her duty is to inform the people of the truth that our government was keeping from them. It was supposed to be my last act of defiance before I planned to kill myself. The Veterans Administration had refused to see me after my reserves squadron refused me medical treatment and medical discharge. They told me it was my fault, and I believed them. The only answer I could come up with was the samurai ritual of seppuku. 

Leading up to the release of the Der Spiegel article, I had convinced myself that more people would lend their voice to the outcry, that the people I left knew what was at stake and they would fix everything. I was wrong. They attacked me for whichever reasons they wanted to justify to themselves. But I knew in my heart that what I had done was finally right. 

One of the board members who gave me the 2015 Whistleblower of the Year Award told me she had believed that a murderer did not deserve the prize. I told her I agreed. My original speech declined the award. I did believe, and still believe, that I am unworthy of it. Many people that I knew and told about the nomination had tried to convince me to accept it, saying it was a validation of what I had been saying. While I could understand that reasoning, it didn’t sit well in my heavy heart. My little brother had told me that I was his hero, and while I didn’t believe I was worthy of that title, I wanted to act like it for him. I couldn’t let anyone go through what I experienced.