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Joystick warfare hell

An American drone operator recovers in Missoula

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“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. Bryant cried on his way home, he says, 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.

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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 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 says. 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 nor stimulating enough for him. He’s also having trouble sleeping these days.

“There was no time for feelings”

Maj. 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 crosshairs on the monitor follow 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, Col. 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.”

After work, she would drive home along U.S. Highway 85 into Las Vegas, listening to country music and passing peace activists without looking at them. She rarely thought about what happened in the cockpit. But sometimes she would review the individual steps in her head, hoping to improve her performance.

Or she would go shopping. It felt strange to her, sometimes, when the woman at the register would ask: “How’s it going?” She would answer: “I’m good. How are you? Have a nice day.” When she felt restless she would go for a run. She says that being able to help the boys on the ground motivated her to get up every morning.

There was no room for the evils of the world in Meyer’s home. She and her husband, also a drone pilot, didn’t talk about work. She would put on her pajamas and watch cartoons on TV or play with the baby.

Today Meyer has two small children. She wants to show them “that mommy can get to work and do a good job.” She doesn’t want to be like the women in Afghanistan she watched—submissive and covered from head to toe. “The women there are no warriors,” she says. Meyer says that her current job as a trainer is very satisfying but that, one day, she would like to return to combat duty.

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