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Service With A Price On Your Soul

"Drone crews have launched more missiles and killed more people than anyone else in the military in the past decade. Let that sink in for a moment before we proceed.

But the military does not count drone pilots as combat troops because they are not deployed, and as such, they seldom get the same recovery periods and mental health screenings as other military personnel receive. Instead, they are treated as office workers, expected to show up for endless shifts in the military industrial complex's endless wars. But one with devastating consequences. " 1

Under the unrelenting stress, several former drone pilots said, the pilots broke down. Drinking and using drugs to cope with the stress of killing at such a scale was common. Marriages fell apart. Because the drone pilots weren't allowed to discuss what they did on behalf of their government, the necessary emotional pressure valve to relieve the stress could not open.

Some left the operation with lasting emotional scars. Some attempted suicide. And the military did nothing. It failed to recognize the full psychological impact of killing in numbers even frontline troops never see. One such young man was Air Force Captain, Kevin Larson.

He grew up in Yakima, Washington, the son of police officers. At the University of Washington, where he was an honors student, he joined the ROTC and the Civil Air Patrol, set on becoming a fighter pilot. The Air Force had other plans. By the time he was commissioned in 2012, the then Obama administration had developed a seemingly insatiable appetite for drones, and the Air Force was struggling to keep up. That year the Air Force turned out more drone pilots than traditional fighter pilots and still could not meet the demand.

Larson became a drone pilot and was one of the best. He was assigned to the 867th Attack Squadron at Creech, a unit that pilots say worked largely with the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command. Larson flew the heavily armed MQ-9 Reaper, and in 650 combat missions between 2013 and 2018, he had launched at least 188 airstrikes, earned 20 medals for achievement and killed a top man on the U.S.’ most-wanted terrorist list.

Larson flew his missions with a drone thousands of miles away from his base of operations in Nevada. At home in Las Vegas, he exuded a carefree confidence. He loved to go out dancing with his beautiful wife. In fact, Larson was so strikingly handsome that he did side work as a fashion model. But things would gradually change with each and every strike.

In the Air Force, drone pilots did not pick the targets. The drone pilots had no operational autonomy or decision making on whether it was a righteous kill or not. No exceptions. That was the job of someone the pilots called “the customer.” The customer might be a conventional ground force commander attempting to neutralize enemy fire, or a classified Special Operations strike cell hunting a high-value target, or the worst of all, the CIA with a kill list. It did not matter. The customer got what the customer wanted.

The customer always walked away after the mission was concluded, leaving the pilot who pulled the trigger alone to ponder upon the mission and it's moral implications. And despite hundreds of killing missions, Larson’s personnel file, under the heading “COMBAT SERVICE,” offers only a single word: “NONE.”

The drone program started in 2001 during the Bush 43 administration, as a small, tightly controlled operation, hunting only high-level terrorist targets. Early in the program, missions seemed well managed. Officials carefully chose their targets and took extraordinary steps to minimize civilian deaths. But over time, the rules meant to protect civilians broke down, particularly, during the Obama years, when the fleet grew larger, the targets more numerous and more commonplace. The Obama administration liked the use of drones as it provided a high enemy kill tally with relatively low American loses, which were good for his political image.

However as pressure began mounting on the Obama administration for the killing of innocent civilians almost daily, the administration decided to do something about it and that they did. But not what you think would be the sensible, right thing to do which would be to return to the early Bush policies with more restrictions on the use of drones.

Instead, the administration loosened the restrictions and declared that anyone killed in a drone attack between the ages of 14 and 60 was an enemy combatant! The count of unnecessary civilian deaths, or as they like to sanitize it, "collateral damage," increased and before Obama left office, was in the thousands. But to be fair, the Trump administration secretly loosened them too, even further, against ISIS. But back to Larson.

Larson’s story, woven together with those of other drone crew members, reveals an unseen toll on the other end of those remote-controlled strikes. Larson tried to cope with the trauma by using psychedelic drugs. That became another secret he had to keep. Eventually, the Air Force found out. He was charged with using and distributing illegal drugs and stripped of his flight status. His marriage fell apart, and his wife left him. Larson, soon thereafter, was put on trial, facing a possible prison term of more than 20 years.

Because he was not a conventional combat veteran, there was no required psychological evaluation to see what influence his war-fighting experience might have had on his misconduct. At his trial, no one mentioned the 188 classified missile strikes. In January 2020, he was quickly convicted. After deliberating for a few hours on the morning of Jan. 17, the military tribunal returned with guilty verdicts on nearly every count.

Desperate to avoid prison, reeling from what he saw as a betrayal by the military to which he had dedicated his life, Larson ran. The Air Force put out an arrest warrant for a a possibly armed deserter under the influence of drugs. It wasn't going to end well. And it didn't.

Larson was eventually cornered in a Canyon in northern California. Ironically, the heavily armed police SRT units, decided to send in a drone to locate him. And that it did. Larson, determined not to go to prison, nor wanting to kill anymore, looked at the drone and smiled, then placed the muzzle of his AR rifle under his chin and blew his brains out. And with that came the end to a young man who only wanted to be a pilot.

1. Dave Philipps, New York Times, April 15th, 2022

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