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Former Nellis AFB Drone Operator On First Kill, PTSD, Being Shunned By Fellow Airmen

Former drone pilot Brandon Bryant discusses his life as a pilot at Nellis Air Force Base
"MQ-9 Reaper in flight (2007)" by U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson - USAF Photographic Archives (image permalink). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Former drone pilot Brandon Bryant discusses his life as a pilot at Nellis Air Force Base

In the new movie Good Kill, Ethan Hawke plays an airmanwho remotely operates Predator drones from the safety of a cubicle at Creech Air Force Base, 50 miles north of Las Vegas.

But in the film we learn that the cubicle is not such a safe place. Ethan Hawke’s character suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder on the job.

Former drone operator Brandon Bryant, who was stationed at Nellis for four years, consulted with the writer/director of Good Kill​, Andrew Niccol. 

Bryant told KNPR he was part of a two-man drone team, and it was his job to locate targets and launch missiles.

When he ended his four-year stint, Bryant received a certificate honoring him for having aided in the deaths of some 1,600 people.

First Kill, First Combat Stress

Bryant told KNPR's State of Nevada that in his first day operating a drone at Nellis, he had one of the most graphic experiences of his four-year career. He came on shift, and there was a, "troops in contact situation", in the mountains of Afghanistan.

On the monitor screens at Nellis, Bryant could see individuals in infrared--men carrying rifles.

"We were given permission to fire," Bryant said. "We obliterated two of them, and I watched the third one bleed out on infrared camera..." Through the transmissions of the camera lens on the drone, Bryant could see the body cooling until it was indistinguishable from cold ground. It was winter in Afghanistan at the time.

"I felt that I had betrayed something. I believed we were killing people for the right reasons. But I didn't get any of the satisfaction that I thought I would get from that," Bryant recalls. "And it was horrifying to know how easy it was. I felt like a coward because I was halfway across the world and the guy never even knew I was there."

Bryant also was upset by the jubilant celebrations by his teammates at Nellis who had wrapped up its part of the operation.

"They were congratulating each other for killing terrorists, killing insurgents. And really glorifying the act of killing," Bryant said. "It made me sick."

From that point forward, Bryant felt as if he didn't belong.

Post-Traumatic Stress

The more that he shut himself away, the more isolated he felt. He started drinking heavily, playing video games when he wasn't working, and working out.

"I stopped sleeping because I was dreaming in infrared," he said. "White hot, black hot, the same type of filters I would see at work. It was like I couldn't escape myself."

Bryant told KNPR that at the time, airmen were discouraged from seeking psychological help at Nellis.

"When I told them I wasn't doing so well, they told me that if I sought help then they would revoke my clearance," he said. "So that kind of kept me in line."

Then Bryant's commander ordered him to go see with a chaplain.

"I went to go see a chaplain," Bryant said. "And the chaplain told me that it was God's plan for all this to happen and that I should accept that."

Fellow pilots labeled him as a, "complainer." He says no one wanted to fly with him because he would talk about his, "feelings. And why I (thought) that what they were doing was questionable and possibly wrong. I was told to, 'shut one wants to hear you bitch.'"

A Decision to Leave the Air Force, and to Speak Out

Eventually, Bryant's feelings about what he was doing overwhelmed him. 

"I felt damned," he said. "I felt like I was haunted by a legion of the dead. My physical health was gone, my mental health was crumbled. I was in so much pain I was ready to eat a bullet myself."

His feeling of guilt and damnation led him to give an interview with Der Spiegel, and then other news outlets.

"I was hoping that me speaking out about my experiences, would cause more (drone operators) to speak about their experiences," he said. "I know I'm not the only one to have dealt with (PTSD)."

But according to Bryant, leadership at Nellis told rank and file airmen that he was putting other operators in danger.

"I lost pretty much every connection that I have had in the military," Bryant said. "They kind of left me to dry."

Life After Drones

Now living in his native Montana, Bryant is still in therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder.

"I still don't sleep very much," he said. "PTSD is just is the brain shaping itself around experiences. It's never going away. I just have to learn to deal with it."

But he has no regrets. Some former drone operators have reached out to him to talk about their experiences too, though most still keep their distance for now.

"I do know several people (who), when their contract is up I'm betting they're going to be speaking (out) as well,"Bryant said.

Bryant hopes that the drone operators living in Las Vegas understand that he spoke out make things better. He also wants to see a military that can carry out a mission without losing site of morals and ethics.

Bryant said he wants airmen to be able to, "reason your own morals and logic, and being the honorable people we're supposed to be as military members."

Editors's note: This story originally aired January 2015

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Bradon Bryant, former drone pilot, Nellis Air Force Base

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.