Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Drone operators speak out against the culture of drugs and callousness among pilots

NOVEMBER 24, 201510:29AM

Former drone pilots are speaking out against the callous culture behind the winged missiles. Photo: Isaac Brekken, Getty Images.

Nick Whigham

OPERATORS of US military drones are taking bath salts and drinking alcohol while on shift, according to a number of former drone pilots speaking out against the callous culture of the program.

Michael Haas would regularly snort a couple bumps of bath salts to get him through his eleven hour shift. He said it was commonplace for operators to use synthetic drugs — that wouldn’t be picked up in testing — while carrying out targeted assassinations.

Speaking at a press conference in New York, Haas, along with other former drone pilots spoke about the heartless culture of the program and the mental consequences for those involved. They told of a workplace where Afghani and Iraqi children were referred to as “fun sized terrorists” and killing them earned the sickening euphemism of “cutting the grass before it got too long.”

The event coincided with the release of a new documentary called Drone that follows the experience of Brandon Bryant who suffered immense mental anguish from his time as a drone operator.

The psychological impact of sitting in a darkened room in front of a computer screen and killing people on the other side of the world has become a major issue for the military over the last couple years. The stress and trauma experienced by those in the job has caused over 1,000 US drone pilots to quit and the military is scrambling to explain why.

The latest instance of drone pilots speaking out, along with the release of the documentary from Norwegian filmmaker Tonje Hessen Schei, has thrust the issue back into the spotlight with increased urgency.

Bryant remembers telling his training officers that he didn’t think he would be able to kill people from a comfortable chair in the Nevada desert. But the response was unsympathetic.

“You took an oath,” he was told.

“If you wanted to go and talk to a therapist about it, they would say; ‘well if you do, you’re security clearance in going to get taken away’, and that scared a lot of people,” he told filmmakers.

Soon enough he was honouring that oath and carrying out drone strikes against faceless individuals in Afghanistan. He would point and click, and then watch as the figures on the screen would change colour as their bodies grew cold.

At an emotionally charged point in the film, he recounts his first deadly strike.

“It’s January so it’s cold up in the mountains of Afghanistan and I watch this man bleed out ... The missile had taken off one of his legs, right above the knee,” he said. “He’s rolling around on the ground and I imagined his last moments. What were his last thoughts? Was he cursing us? Was he asking his god for our forgiveness?”

Brandon Bryant has been vocal about the perils of the drone program.Source:Supplied
The way in which his guilt and trauma manifested itself still weighs heavily on Bryant.
My post traumatic stress started manifesting itself as like a manic need to do better. I flew more missions than anybody else because I had that feeling of guilt, so I took up responsibility,” he said.

Sixteen hundred and twenty-six people were killed in the operations that I took part of.”

For many others, they turned to drugs such as synthetic marijuana, bath salts and alcohol in an effort to “bend reality and try to picture yourself not being there,” Haas told reporters.

The biggest issue is the non accountability,” Bryant added.

For him, the money was good but it cost him his humanity. Suffering from PTSD he returned home to sleep on his mum’s couch and whatever money he put aside quickly evaporated.

I spent all the money the reserves paid me on alcohol until I ran out of money,” he said. It was a period he described in the documentary as the lowest point in his life.

Apparently I had my handgun on the coffee table and my mum got home one day. I don’t remember this but she thinks I was going to kill myself,” he recalled.

While the mental health of US drone pilots has become a growing political issue in America, so too has the effectiveness of the policy in combating extremist militants. A number of reports have cast doubt over the accuracy of the strikes as well as the lasting impact they have on community sentiment in the target countries.

In 2013 The Atlantic wrote an article outlining “how drones create more terrorists.”
Twelve months earlier, The New York Times published as an article making the same argument.

“They (militants) are not driven by ideology but rather by a sense of revenge and despair,” the Times wrote of the impact of the drone program.

The White House has repeatedly denied the link but it’s one that Bryant and his fellow drone whistleblowers believe to be real.

“We kill four and create 10 (militants),” Bryant said. “If you kill someone’s father, uncle or brother who had nothing to do with anything, their families are going to want revenge.

It was among a list of grievances raised by Bryant, Haas and two other former drone pilots in a letter addressed to President Obama in which they called for greater scrutiny over the country’s drone program.

When the guilt of our roles in facilitating this systematic loss of innocent life became too much, all of us succumbed to PTSD,” the letter said.

We cannot sit silently by and witness tragedies like the attacks in Paris, knowing the devastating effects the drone program has overseas and at home.

Brandon Bryant has been vocal about the perils of the drone program.

Airman use a ground control station cockpit to remotely pilot aircraft during a training mission at an air base in Nevada. Photo: Isaac Brekken/Getty ImagesSource:AFP

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At midday on Friday 5 February, 2016 Julian Assange, John Jones QC, Melinda Taylor, Jennifer Robinson and Baltasar Garzon will be speaking at a press conference at the Frontline Club on the decision made by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention on the Assange case.


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