By Mick Krever, CNN
The first time Brandon Bryant fired a Hellfire missile from his U.S. drone, it was a cold January day.
“His right leg was severed,” Bryant told CNN’s Hala Gorani, sitting in for Christiane Amanpour. “I watched him bleed out from his femoral artery.”
“It was shocking,” he said. “It's pixelated, and it doesn't really look real. But it was real.”
Bryant, of course, was sitting thousands of miles away in the American desert.
After years as a drone sensor operator, he became disillusioned with the career, and turned down a hefty bonus to continue.
“You're still in the war zone and regardless of whether you're physically there or not,” he told Gorani. “America wants an antiseptic war. … The reality is that nothing is clean.”
Everyone understands that troops on patrol in Afghanistan are “in” the war; for drone operators, the picture – at least in the public lexicon – has seemingly been more convoluted.
“There's a level of intimacy that goes with every action in war,” Bryant said. “It's completely psychological. You hear the hum of a computer. You don't feel the missile coming off the rail; you watch it.”
And for Bryant, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, it was no less damaging.
“All the drone operators, they get a bad rap,” he said. “It’s not a video game. … It is real life, and these people need just as much help.”
The “video game” aspect of his job was reinforced by his trainers, he said.
“The training was more imaginary than real,” he told Gorani. “We were consistently told when I was going through training that our job was to kill people and break things.”
“There's a huge mental health issue here that no one wants to seem to address,” Bryant said. “They're human beings; they're affected by this just as much as people on the ground.”
Ironically, the reputation of military types – deserved or not – to discourage soldiers from seeking psychological guidance held true for warriors sitting in shipping containers in the Nevada and New Mexico deserts, according to Bryant.
“We were told to shut up and color. We couldn't talk to a psychologist,” he told Gorani. “And if we talked to anyone, we'd lose our clearance.”
No doubt because it appears antiseptic, the U.S.’s drone program is extremely popular among Americans.
“I'm never going to compare myself to the guys on the ground,” Bryant said. “They're much … braver than I am.”
But “if you are one of those people that are for [the drone program] then you need to hold your leadership accountable for their actions,” he said.
“You can't give someone that amount of power and expect them to use it wisely without being put in check.”