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Joystick warfare hell

An American drone operator recovers in Missoula

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“I can’t just switch back and go back to normal life”

At some point, Brandon Bryant just wanted to get out and do something else. He spent a few more months overseas, this time in Afghanistan. But then, when he returned to New Mexico, he found that he suddenly hated the cockpit, which smelled of sweat. He began spraying air freshener to get rid of the stench. He also found he wanted to do something that saved lives rather than took them away. He thought working as a survival trainer might fit the bill, although his friends tried to dissuade him.

The program that he then began working on in his bungalow in Clovis every day was called Power 90 Extreme, a boot camp-style fitness regimen. It included dumbbell training, push-ups, chin-ups and sit-ups. He also lifted weights almost every day.

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On uneventful days in the cockpit, he would write in his diary, jotting down lines like: “On the battlefield there are no sides, just bloodshed. Total war. Every horror witnessed. I wish my eyes would rot.”

If he could just get into good enough shape, he thought to himself, they would let him do something different. The problem was that he was pretty good at his job.

At some point he no longer enjoyed seeing his friends. He met a girl, but she complained about his bad moods. “I can’t just switch and go back to normal life,” he told her. When he came home and couldn’t sleep, he would exercise instead. He began talking back to his superior officers.

One day he collapsed at work, doubling over and spitting blood. The doctor told him to stay home, and ordered him not to return to work until he could sleep more than four hours a night for two weeks in a row.

“Half a year later, I was back in the cockpit, flying drones,” says Bryant, sitting in his mother’s living room in Missoula. His dog whimpers and lays its head on his cheek. He can’t get to his own furniture at the moment. It’s in storage, and he doesn’t have the money to pay the bill. All he has left is his computer.

Bryant posted a drawing on Facebook the night before our interview. It depicts a couple standing, hand-in-hand, in a green meadow, looking up at the sky. A child and a dog are sitting on the ground next to them. But the meadow is just a part of the world. Beneath it is a sea of dying soldiers, propping themselves up with their last bit of strength, a sea of bodies, blood and limbs.

Doctors at the Veterans’ Administration diagnosed Bryant with post-traumatic stress disorder. General hopes for a comfortable war —one that could be completed without emotional wounds—haven’t been fulfilled. Indeed, Bryant’s world has melded with that of the child in Afghanistan. It’s like a short circuit in the brain of the drones.

Why isn’t he with the Air Force anymore? There was one day, he says, when he knew that he wouldn’t sign the next contract. It was the day Bryant walked into the cockpit and heard himself saying to his coworkers: “Hey, what motherfucker is going to die today?”

This article originally appeared in Der Spiegel and was translated by Christopher Sultan and published with permission through The New York Times syndicate.

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