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. He cried on his way home, says Bryant, 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.
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 100 kilometers (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 felt remorse because of the children, whose fathers he was taking away. “They were good daddies,” he says.
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.
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.”