'Refuse to Fly': Ex-Military Members Ask Drone Operators to Disobey Orders

Forty-five former and retired U.S. military members penned a joint letter to current drone operators asking them to protest and leave their jobs, as they consider strikes to be a violation of international law. Tech. Sgt Christopher Flahive/U.S. Air Force

Forty-five former and retired U.S. military members penned a joint letter asking that current operators of military drones walk away from their missions.

"At least 6,000 lives have been unjustly taken by US drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, the Philippines, Libya and Syria," the authors wrote. "These attacks are also undermining principles of international law and human rights."

President Barack Obama said during his State of the Union address earlier this year: "I've…worked to make sure our use of new technology, like drones, is properly constrained." Yet, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a nonprofit based in London, found that, in many ways, the U.S. stepped up its drone campaign in 2014.

The appeal from former military members follows reports that the U.S. Air Force is reducing to 60 from 65 its number of daily drone flights, mainly because the stress of the job is causing drone operators to leave in droves.

Operators can spend 12 hours a day sitting in front of a sea of computer screens, maneuvering drones to surveil and strike targets located thousands of miles away. Former drone operator Brandon Bryant earlier told Newsweek the story of his first strike:

Three men with rifles were walking along a road somewhere in Afghanistan; the two in front looked as if they were having an argument, while the third wandered a little behind them. Bryant says he had no idea who the men were, only that they were targets. Command ordered his team to aim a missile at the two men in front instead of the one in the back, as 'two is better than one.'

When the smoke cleared, a crater appeared on Bryant's screen, littered with the body parts of the two men. The third man lay on the ground, missing part of his right leg. 'I watched him bleed out,' Bryant recalls. The third man's blood, which on Bryant's screen appeared white in infrared, drained from his body, pooled on the ground and cooled. 'After a while, he stopped moving, and he became the same color as the ground.'

After a shift like this, operators head home to their civilian lives.

"Having our folks make that mental shift every day, driving into the gate and thinking, All right, I've got my war face on, and I'm going to the fight, and then driving out of the gate and stopping at Wal-Mart to pick up a carton of milk or going to the soccer game on the way home—and the fact that you can't talk about most of what you do at home—all those stressors together are what is putting pressure on the family, putting pressure on the airman," Col. James Cluff told The New York Times.

Though not physically in danger, drone operators experience many stress disorders—including PTSD—at the same rate as aircraft pilots, according to a Defense Department study from 2013.

An Air Force spokesman responded to the letter in an email to the Military Times.

"Our remotely piloted aircraft operators perform a critically important mission that contributes significantly to national defense," said Lt. Col. Christopher Karns. "They are professional and comply with applicable law, policies, and adhere to very exacting procedures."

The letter from ex-military members is part of a campaign called "refuse to fly," coordinated by the website KnowDrones.com.