It’s like a video game, they say, but with grave consequences that aren't easily forgotten.
Suffering from PTSD and unshakeable regret, former Air Force drone operators are now speaking out against the military program, deeming it “morally outrageous.”
Four former drone servicemen have directly addressed President Obama, Defense Secretary Ash Carter, and CIA Director John Brennan in condemnation of the drone program.
With more than 20 years of combined experience, the pilots urge the Obama administration to reconsider its use of unmanned aerial warfare and the subsequent destruction of innocent lives.
“This administration and its predecessors have built a drone program that is one of the most devastating driving forces for terrorism and destabilization around the world," the pilots wrote in an open letter. “We cannot sit silently by and witness tragedies like the attacks in Paris, knowing the effects of the drone program has overseas and at home.”
Three of the four former pilots sat down with NBC, describing their own experiences grappling with the line of work as operators, instructors, and a technician. They were accompanied by their lawyer, Kathleen McClellan.
"We were very callous about any real collateral damage," Michael Haas told NBC’s Jake Heller. "Whenever that possibility came up, most of the time it was a 'guilt by association' or sometimes we didn't even consider other people that were on screen."
“The less they can get you to think about how what you’re shooting at is human, the easier it becomes for you to follow through,” Mr. Haas continued.
In the letter also signed by Cian Westmoreland, Stephen Lewis, and Brandon Bryant, the men detail the lasting effects of their service in the drone program even years after quitting.
Since President Obama took office, drone strikes have increased, killing between a combined total of 2,736 and 4,169 militants in Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan, according to NBC News. But an additional estimated 488 to 1,071 civilians died in these strikes, based on data compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
“We were cut loose by the same government we gave so much to – sent out into the world without adequate medical care, reliable public health resources, or necessary benefits,” the letter went on. “Some of us are homeless. Others of us barely make it.”
The Air Force has not been entirely unaware of their mental health concerns. Col. Hernando Ortega, surgeon for the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Agency told The Christian Science Monitor in 2012 that pilots routinely deal with “existential conflict.”
"We have guys who have not deployed anywhere and yet can still have combat effects of distant places," Mr. Ortega said.
Difficult work schedules also contribute to the emotional distress. With overnight 16-hour shifts, the workload alone becomes a cause for anxiety.
Currently, the turnaround rate for drone pilots is high. The Air Force is losing more pilots than it is training, Mr. Heller reported, though the military agency is trying to "stabilize the force."
“We have 240 people leaving each year,” Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh told NPR earlier this year. Meanwhile, only 180 new ones are trained despite an increase in planned drone missions.
In October, The Intercept published a series of analyses based on leaked documents on the military’s kill/capture operations between 2011 and 2013. A major finding was the loose guidelines under which strikes are ordered.
The official policy states that the US has the authority to target an “area of active hostilities” if it represents a “continuing, imminent threat to US persons.” But “imminent threat” is never defined; once a target is identified, the military has 60 days to execute a strike regardless of changing circumstances.
In the capriciousness of war, Mr. Lewis said, “there’s no restart button.”
“It weighs on your conscious, it weighs on your soul, and it weighs on your heart.”