PUBLISHED: 14:41 EST, 30 July 2012 | UPDATED: 15:42 EST, 30 July 2012
Colonel D Scott Brenton kills insurgents in Afghanistan from an office 7,000 miles away in suburban Syracuse, New York.
Contrary to popular belief, though, the US Air Force officer says piloting a remote-controlled drone gives him a dramatically more intimate connection with his targets than he ever had when he was piloting an F-16 fighter plane and dropping guided bombs from 20,000 feet.
Col Brenton and other pilots say they often spend several hours a day for several days at a time watching a militant’s house from the powerful cameras aboard the MQ-9 Reaper drones before striking.
‘I see mothers with children, I see fathers with children, I see fathers with mothers, I see kids playing soccer,’ Col Brenton told the New York Times.
The military has been criticized by human rights groups for using drones flown and fired by distant pilots for ‘dehumanizing’ the use of deadly force of a battlefield.
However, the Times reports that many drone pilots have a uniquely intimate view of the enemy. It’s a perspective one troops on the ground seldom see, fighter planes are too high in the clouds to spot and attack helicopters don’t stick around to witness.
‘There was good reason for killing the people that I did, and I go through it in my head over and over and over,’ Will, an Air Force officer who now trains drone pilots told the Times.
‘But you never forget about it. It never just fades away, I don’t think — not for me.’
It’s an untold perspective on this rapidly-growing part of US combat operations.
The Air Force currently has 1,300 drone pilots — and still need 300 more. Commanders project they will need 2,000 pilots by 2015.
‘You see them wake up in the morning, do their work, go to sleep at night.’
Dave, US Air Force drone pilot trainer
A pilot might circle a militant’s home or compound numerous times before firing off deadly missile.
The military wants to make sure they have the right target — and also wants to gather intelligence about the area before leveling a home with explosives from high above.
A pilot is likely to see the insurgent building bombs, or planning ambushes for NATO troops, but he also sees him go to bed with his wife, eat dinner with his family and spend time with his children.
‘You see them wake up in the morning, do their work, go to sleep at night,’ a drone pilot trainer at Holloman Air Force Base, who gave his name only as Major Dave, told the Times.
When the strike order comes in, pilots wait until women and children are clear — usually when they leave to go to the market — before pilling the trigger.
‘They watch this guy do bad things and then his regular old life things,’ Col Hernando Ortega, the chief of aerospace medicine for the Air Education Training Command, told the Times.
‘At some point, some of the stuff might remind you of stuff you did yourself. You might gain a level of familiarity that makes it a little difficult to pull the trigger.’
The strain has caused the Air Force to move chaplains and medics on to drove bases to counsel the pilots — even though they are doing their work just a few miles from the safety of their homes and their families.
The pilots interviewed by the Times insisted, like all soldiers, that they don’t hesitate when the time comes.
‘I feel no emotional attachment to the enemy. I have a duty, and I execute the duty,’ Col Brenton said.
Still, pilots reported feeling strain from the up-close images they see — even though the scenes are thousands of miles away.
‘I’ve seen some pretty disturbing things,’ one drone pilot trainer told the Times.