TODAY   |  June 06, 2013

Ex-drone operator with PTSD: ‘We see everything’

For nearly six years, senior airman Brandon Bryant operated the camera on drones over Iraq and Afghanistan. He tells NBC’s Richard Engel about watching one of the first of more than 1,600 victims bleed to death.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>> now nbc news investigates drone warfare. it is a controversial component of america's wars in iraq and afghanistan. this morning, nbc chief foreign correspondent richard engel gets a unique and exclusive perspective from one insider. richard, good morning.

>> good morning. as you said the u.s. has been using drones for a long time inside and outside of combat zones. and yet, almost everything about the program is hidden. the operators, the victims. but we spoke to this airman who said that there can be at times an impact even on those who are behind the controls.

>> reporter: for nearly six years, senior airman brandon bryant operated the camera on drones over iraq and afghanistan from u.s. bases in nevada and new mexico. this is the first time he's spoken on television about his experiences.

>> my recruiter actually made a james bond reference. he's like, you know those guys that sit in the back and give james bond all of the information he needs to execute his mission? i was like, yeah, and he was like, you'll be one of those guys. i didn't think i'd have to pull a trigger.

>> did they talk to you about civilians? did they say there might be civilians in the area and we don't want to kill them?

>> they would say something like we only strike at people who are away from civilians who are bad guys . so like if there's civilians in the area, no striking, none at all.

>> so you think there was a concerted effort to try and avoid civilian casualties ?

>> yes.

>> reporter: but brian sometimes had doubts. on a mission, he was told to track three afghan men walking six miles away from a fire fight with u.s. troops .

>> they're just lollygagging, doing their thing. they were probably carrying rifles, but i wasn't convinced they were bad guys .

>> you got the order to strike?

>> yes. when the smoke clears, there was a crater there and i watched this guy bleed out. i can almost see the agony on this guy's face. it's really more intimate for us because we see everything.

>> do you think he was a combatant?

>> i have my serious doubts now, but i didn't really question those voices in my head . this isn't is a video game. this isn't some sort of fantasy.

>> and it became even more real when a commander gave them a tally of those killed on missions to which he contributed.

>> 1,626 total people killed on every mission i've ever been on.

>> 1,626? that's a big number.

>> i would have been happy if they never showed me the piece of paper.

>> when they handed it to you, did they say congratulations?

>> yeah, actually, they did. i did my job, i did it better than anyone else.

>> 1,626.

>> correct.

>> how many of them do you think were innocent?

>> it's a number i don't want to think about.

>> but it is a big number, richard engel , an interesting perspective.

>> we don't often hear that kind of perspective from the people behind the controls. and there are many other drone operators. and it's a weapon he doesn't oppose, but he thinks one that should be subject to more debate.

>> good to have you here.

>>> it's 20 minutes after the hour for an extended interview with brandon bryant, head to