Dozens Arrested in Protest to End Drone Warfare and Protect Soldiers’ Mental Health

Even though they’re not on the front lines, drone operators suffer from PTSD too.

(Photo: Terry Moore/Getty Images)

Mar 6, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

Sitting safely behind a computer screen in a military trailer in Nevada, Airman 1st Class Brandon Bryant was poised to kill as he watched video surveillance of three men in Afghanistan who were believed to be armed.

With commands from his superiors, Bryant gave the order to release a drone that killed the trio, all from 7,500 miles away.

Bryant is one of the first sensor operators who worked in conjunction with a drone pilot in the U.S. Air Force and one of the only service members willing to speak out about his experience.

“I couldn’t stand myself for doing it,” he told RT last month.

He’s been vocal about the immorality of the Air Force’s drone warfare in which innocent civilians make up a high portion of the casualities. Activists are concerned that the high-tech work has unexamined traumatic impact on the people who carry it out.

“We understand the position they’re in because we’ve been there before, ourselves, and we wanted them to know that they have alternatives,” Gerry Condon, vice president of the activist group Veterans for Peace, told TakePart.

His group and activists from Code Pink, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and the Nevada Desert Experience have joined the cause. Condon reports that more than 100 people attended a protest at Nevada’s Creech Air Force Base on Friday.

Condon said 34 of the protesters were arrested as the group attempted to shut down the base. He emphasized that the protest was not against operators like Bryant but drone warfare as a whole.

Drone operations are considered hubs of war crimes by human rights organizations. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other groups have demanded more transparency on the government’s use of unmanned drones, asking for oversight and an investigation into bystander fatalities. While the government has said that civilian causalities are rare, the death of a 68-year-old Pakistani grandmother picking vegetables in 2012 provided a tragic example of an innocent person losing her life to a drone attack.

She isn’t the only one. Stanford University and New York University scholars teamed up to look at deaths by drone under a project called Living Under Drones. They reported that the best data they could find indicate that from June 2004 to September 2012, drones killed up to 3,325 people in Pakistan, and of those, up to 881 were civilians. Of those, about 176 were children.

“Whole communities in Pakistan are living in terror because they have drones overhead constantly,” Condon explained. “They never know when they might be struck.”

Bryant is still troubled that one of the 13 people killed during one of his missions was a child, causing guilt that would haunt him for years to come. After leaving active duty in 2011, he suffered such severe PTSD—from erratic behavior to heavy drinking—that his mother worried he would commit suicide, according to GQ’s 2013 profile.

“Just because the killing they’re doing is halfway around the world doesn’t mean they’re not affected by it,” Condon said.

Also, because many compare drone warfare to playing video games, the stigma associated with asking for mental care after returning from duty is even higher for those who never set foot on the battlefield.

Bryant himself didn’t think he could suffer from PTSD from remote warfare. “I went in with the mind-set that it was stupid and that there was no way I could develop something of the sort,” Bryant wrote on Gawker. “[In counseling] I learned about moral injury and how my actions were quite manic, disorderly, antisocial, and desperate.”

While Bryant isn’t entirely opposed to using drones, provided there is proper oversight, Condon struggled to come up with an instance in which drone warfare would be acceptable.

“If there were such a thing as a just war that was truly in self-defense and truly the last option and something that was supported by the international community, maybe,” Condon said. “But we haven’t seen a war like that in a long time.”