Brandon Bryant felt “haunted by a legion of the dead.”
That’s how the former Air Force drone sensor operator who worked at the Nellis and Creech bases — and with a special operations squadron near Clovis, N.M. — described his bout with war stress from holding laser beams on people half a world away and steering Hellfire missiles to obliterate them.
It’s what drone crews call a “Good Kill.”
On Friday, a movie of that title debuted in New York and Los Angeles after screening in foreign markets. It will appear at a local theater, Tropicana Cinemas, next week and go to video on demand, renewing awareness of Nevada’s role in the secret drone program.
The independent film stars Ethan Hawke as a former Air Force fighter pilot living in Las Vegas and flying drones from an unnamed base — presumably Creech Air Force Base, 45 miles north of Las Vegas at Indian Springs.
The drone strike program started at Creech, and the base remains a focal point of the U.S. global war on terrorism. While drones on reconnaissance and attack missions are launched closer to battlefields, they are operated remotely from Creech. Flights from the base are limited to training.
The movie parallels Bryant’s experiences and the mental torment he endured during five years of remote-controlled missile strikes that killed more than a dozen enemy combatants and others in Afghanistan and the Middle East. During his time with the 3rd Special Operations Squadron at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., the unit claimed 1,626 kills.
“I felt like I had betrayed something of myself,” he told Nevada Public Radio in January, after “Good Kill” was first released. “It was horrifying to know how easy it was. I felt like a coward, and the guy never even knew I was there.”
“Good Kill” writer-director Andrew Niccol described Hawke’s character as “the first generation of this kind of soldier, and there’s just going to be more and more of them.
“I wanted to see, how does someone cope with doing that, fighting the Taliban for 12 hours a day and then going home to the wife and kids,” Niccol said Thursday. “More and more that’s going to be the case. So I wanted to watch the toll that’s going to take on people.”
Bryant was one of the first Air Force drone operators to go on record about the “mental and spiritual” price some pay for Predator Hellfire missile strikes in the nation’s global war on terrorism.
Although attempts to reach Bryant in his hometown of Missoula, Mont., were unsuccessful this week, he said in a 2013 interview with Democracy Now, an independent online program, that he is now speaking out to address misconceptions about drone crews.
Missile strikes by remotely piloted aircraft — sometimes called “kinetic kill” operations — are wrought with life-and-death decisions followed by orders to watch live post-strike video of smoldering rubble and bloody bodies to confirm kills.
“My goal in all this is to talk about, ‘These aren’t killer robots.’ They are not like unfeeling people behind this whole thing,” he told Democracy Now. “It made me realize you can have all the intel in the world, and it’s still not going to be perfect. As clean as these types of strikes can be, they’re in reality really dirty.”
He also wanted to express his frustration from having to grapple with constitutional issues that swirl around drone strikes. The “real debate,” he said, should center on “who was killed without due process and that type of thing.”
A request for comment on the theatrical release of “Good Kill” from the 432nd Wing public affairs staff at Creech, where Bryant served with the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron, went unanswered Friday. The 432nd Operations Group, one of two at Creech, oversees global operations of six reconnaissance and attack squadrons.
Creech officials allowed U.S. and British journalists onto the base in 2008 to see an Afghanistan drone combat mission flown from one of the 8-by-20-foot, trailerlike ground control stations at the base. The movie accurately portrays the facilities and equipment used at that time to conduct armed Predator missions via satellite links overseas.
A preview of “Good Kill” shows what drone operators see on their monitors as 2-second delay video and infrared camera feeds from Predator aircraft show GoogleEarth-type views.
The film’s story line reflects the sobering reality of drone strikes and how they affect the lives of those who conduct them. Long hours of boredom are punctuated by sudden orders to engage targets and survey the aftermath. While the drone operators aren’t in harm’s way, they still must cope with combat stress and, in some cases, post-traumatic stress disorder.
Staff Sgt. Shane R. Owens, 32, a Creech sensor operator diagnosed with PTSD, now sits in confinement at Nellis Air Force Base while the Air Force weighs charges based on allegations related to a domestic violence incident and drug use.
Another Creech senior operator, Master Sgt. Travis Kent Navarro Parkhurst, 37, of North Las Vegas, on April 4 was found dead on Mount Charleston. Little is known about his death, ruled a suicide.
The MQ-1 Predator and the larger, faster, higher-flying MQ-9 Reaper are remotely piloted aircraft that are operated at Creech and other U.S. ground stations in the Middle East and Afghanistan. The tempo of missions and demand for operators as more of them leave the drone community has raised concerns at Air Combat Command.
In January, a leaked memo revealed that leadership at Air Combat Command’s Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., headquarters was worried about “a perfect storm of increased (combat commander) demand, accession reductions, and outflow increases that will damage the readiness and combat capability of the MQ-1/9 enterprise for years to come.”
Col. Ray “Raygun” Alves, a former Creech drone pilot and commander, addressed the memo in a teleconference with reporters at the time.
“Those long work hours, the stress of the job — unfortunately that’s the cost of doing business,” he said. “What we are trying to do is do the best we can to take care of our airmen. … Really, it’s about, ‘Do we need more people in order to reduce those long work hours and the stress we’re putting on our guys?’”
Combat air patrols, each involving four drones in a 24-hour span, hunt “high-value” terrorists, militant targets and strongholds. Their goal is to kill or destroy them using laser-guided Hellfire missiles or bombs. Crews typically work 8-hour shifts, flying three to five hours per shift, five or six days a week.
Two or three years ago, when Alves worked at the Creech base, combat air patrols numbered in the 40s and 50s. Now Air Combat Command aims to provide 62, according to the memo from Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle that surfaced in January.
When they have to fire at enemy combatants in hopes they aren’t mingling with innocent civilians, then monitor the strikes to impact, “it’s very vivid, it’s right there and personal. So it does stay in people’s minds for a long time,” then-commander Col. Albert Aimar at March Air Reserve Base, Calif., said in 2008.
Review-Journal writer Chris Lawrence contributed to this report. Contact Keith Rogers at email@example.com or 702-383-0308. Find him on Twitter: @KeithRogers2