Dreams in Infrared The Woes of an American Drone Operator
Part 2: An Unpopular Job
After graduating from high school, Bryant wanted to become an investigative journalist. He used to go to church on Sundays, and he had a thing for redheaded cheerleaders. By the end of his first semester at college, he had already racked up thousands of dollars in debt.
He came to the military by accident. One day, while accompanying a friend who was enlisting in the army, he heard that the Air Force had its own university, and that he could get a college education for free. Bryant did so well in tests that he was assigned to an intelligence collection unit. He learned how to control the cameras and lasers on a drone, as well as to analyze ground images, maps and weather data. He became a sensor operator, more or less the equivalent to a co-pilot.
He was 20 when he flew his first mission over Iraq. It was a hot, sunny day in Nevada, but it was dark inside the container and just before daybreak in Iraq. A group of American soldiers were on their way back to their base camp. Bryant's job was to monitor the road, to be their "guardian angel" in the sky.
He saw an eye, a shape in the asphalt. "I knew the eye from the training," he says. To bury an improvised explosive device in the road, the enemy combatants place a tire on the road and burn it to soften the asphalt. Afterwards it looks like an eye from above.
The soldiers' convoy was still miles away from the eye. Bryant told his supervisor, who notified the command center. He was forced to look on for several minutes, Bryant says today, as the vehicles approached the site.
"What should we do?" he asked his coworker.
But the pilot was also new on the job.
The soldiers on the ground couldn't be reached by radio, because they were using a jamming transmitter. Bryant saw the first vehicle drive over the eye. Nothing happened.
Then the second vehicle drove over it. Bryant saw a flash beneath, followed by an explosion inside the vehicle.
Five American soldiers were killed.
From then on, Bryant couldn't keep the five fellow Americans out of his thoughts. He began learning everything by heart, including the manuals for the Predator and the missiles, and he familiarized himself with every possible scenario. He was determined to be the best, so that this kind of thing would never happen again.
'I Felt Disconnected from Humanity'
His shifts lasted up to 12 hours. The Air Force still had a shortage of personnel for its remote-controlled war over Iraq and Afghanistan. Drone pilots were seen as cowardly button-pushers. It was such an unpopular job that the military had to bring in retired personnel.
Bryant remembers the first time he fired a missile, killing two men instantly. As Bryant looked on, he could see a third man in mortal agony. The man's leg was missing and he was holding his hands over the stump as his warm blood flowed onto the ground -- for two long minutes. He cried on his way home, says Bryant, and he called his mother.
"I felt disconnected from humanity for almost a week," he says, sitting in his favorite coffee shop in Missoula, where the smell of cinnamon and butter wafts in the air. He spends a lot of time there, watching people and reading books by Nietzsche and Mark Twain, sometimes getting up to change seats. He can't sit in one place for very long anymore, he says. It makes him nervous.
His girlfriend broke up with him recently. She had asked him about the burden he carries, so he told her about it. But it proved to be a hardship she could neither cope with nor share.
When Bryant drives through his hometown, he wears aviator sunglasses and a Palestinian scarf. The inside of his Chrysler is covered with patches from his squadrons. On his Facebook page, he's created a photo album of his coins, unofficial medals he was awarded. All he has is this one past. He wrestles with it, but it is also a source of pride.
When he was sent to Iraq in 2007, he posted the words "ready for action" on his profile. He was assigned to an American military base about 100 kilometers (63 miles) from Baghdad, where his job was to take off and land drones.
As soon as the drones reached flying altitude, pilots in the United States took over. The Predator can remain airborne for an entire day, but it is also slow, which is why it is stationed near the area of operation. Bryant posed for photos wearing sand-colored overalls and a bulletproof vest, leaning against a drone.
Two years later, the Air Force accepted him into a special unit, and he was transferred to the Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico. He and a fellow soldier shared a bungalow in a dusty town called Clovis, which consists mainly of trailers, gas stations and evangelical churches. Clovis is located hours away from the nearest city.
Bryant preferred night shifts, because that meant it was daytime in Afghanistan. In the spring, the landscape, with its snow-covered peaks and green valleys, reminded him of his native Montana. He saw people cultivating their fields, boys playing soccer and men hugging their wives and children.
When it got dark, Bryant switched to the infrared camera. Many Afghans sleep on the roof in the summer, because of the heat. "I saw them having sex with their wives. It's two infrared spots becoming one," he recalls.
He observed people for weeks, including Taliban fighters hiding weapons, and people who were on lists because the military, the intelligence agencies or local informants knew something about them.
"I got to know them. Until someone higher up in the chain of command gave me the order to shoot." He felt remorse because of the children, whose fathers he was taking away. "They were good daddies," he says.
In his free time, Bryant played video games or "World of Warcraft" on the Internet, or he went out drinking with the others. He can't watch TV anymore because it is neither challenging or stimulating enough for him. He's also having trouble sleeping these days.
'There Was No Time for Feelings'
Major Vanessa Meyer, whose real name is covered with black tape, is giving a presentation at the Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico on the training of drone pilots. The Air Force plans to have enough personnel to cover its needs by 2013.
Meyer, 34, who is wearing lip gloss and a diamond on her finger, used to fly cargo planes before she became a drone pilot. Dressed in green Air Force overalls, she is standing in a training cockpit and, using a simulator to demonstrate how a drone is guided over Afghanistan. The crosshair on the monitor follows a white car until it reaches a group of mud huts. One uses the joystick to determine the drone's direction, and the left hand is used to operate the lever that slows down or accelerates the unmanned aircraft. On an airfield behind the container, Meyer shows us the Predator, slim and shiny, and its big brother, the Reaper, which carries four missiles and a bomb. "Great planes," she says. "They just don't work in bad weather."
Meyer flew drones at Creech, the air base near Las Vegas, where young men drive in and out in sports cars and mountain chains stretch across the desert like giant reptiles. Describing his time as a drone pilot in Nevada, Colonel Matt Martin wrote in his book "Predator" that, "Sometimes I felt like God hurling thunderbolts from afar." Meyer had her first child when she was working there. She was still sitting in the cockpit, her stomach pressing up against the keyboard, in her ninth month of pregnancy.
"There was no time for feelings" when she was preparing for an attack, she says today. Of course, she says, she felt her heart beating faster and the adrenaline rushing through her body. But then she adhered strictly to the rules and focused on positioning the aircraft. "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."