The Drone And The Damage Done: How Canada's UAV Operation Wounded Its Own
As the Canadian military argues it needs to buy armed drones, former operators are speaking out for the first time about their work with Canada's unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in Afghanistan, offering unprecedented insight into a secretive operation that was more aggressive than the military publicly let on.
Rose stood in her unfinished basement, took a swig of rum and Coke, and prepared to hang herself.
As she readied the noose, fashioned from a belt wrapped around an exposed floor joist, she thought of that day in Afghanistan, two years earlier. She remembered seeing two men praying for their lives.
She remembered how the pair, kneeling next to a field, frantically bowed as an American fighter jet soared overhead.
Rose had watched that day through the electronic eyes of a drone. Inside a faraway, hot metal box next to a Kandahar Airfield runway, she stared at the video screen, angry and horrified, as the jet homed in on its prey.
Her training had told her none of it was right. The men were too far away. They weren’t the insurgents she had spotted burying explosives in a field 20 minutes earlier, the ones who had escaped the first round of fire on foot. These guys were innocent, she told her superiors.
But her warnings went unheeded. The jet fired a precision-guided munition on one man, blowing him to pieces. The other man, now on the other side of a road, began praying even faster. A second quick blast and he was dead, too.
The two-year-old memory remained seared bright into Rose’s mind. It played incessantly, accompanied by looped images of other horrors: The bright white glow of phosphorous rounds, burning bodies, and an insurgent crawling with his torso fully severed.
Back in her apartment on an Ontario military base, Rose wished she had never come home.
Below the noose, a chair sat on the concrete floor. She looked at it, imagining the liquor would numb the pain, as it had done many mornings since returning to Canada. She took her last sips of rum.
Then the phone rang.
“You don’t know until you actually do it”
Bobby, a longtime artilleryman, was excited to try something new. The Newfoundland and Labrador native joined the military in 1999 and served as a peacekeeper in Bosnia. Canada's unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operation, officially dubbed Operation Noctua, was a chance to get out of the country again and make some money.
The Canadian Armed Forces had previously used the French-built Sperwer UAV in Afghanistan, but it was nothing like the newly leased Heron, a quieter, long-endurance drone with cameras that could read a licence plate from kilometres away.
Bobby met Rose at the military's intelligence school in Kingston, Ontario, in 2008. Their job would be to watch the high-resolution video footage captured by the Heron and identify insurgents.
The rookie intelligence operators learned about Afghan culture, about walking patterns and clothing particular to the Taliban, how to spot improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and more. They also learned a magic three-letter acronym: PID, or positive identification. It meant they had found an enemy.
They spent their days simulating the work they would be doing in Afghanistan with video footage from overseas. Rose's trainers emphasized the good she would be doing for both the Afghan people and her comrades on the ground.
The military made similar public statements. "We're absolutely confident that the Heron is going to increase safety for our soldiers out there working in the battlefield," Col. Christopher Coates told the Edmonton Journal in 2008.
Rose, who had previously worked as a clerk on a military base, was proud to be in a position to save lives.
Still, there were warnings the job could get ugly, Bobby says. “They said in our intelligence course, ‘If you have a problem with killing someone, then this isn’t for you'." He calls it meaningless guidance, though. “You don’t know until you actually do it.”
Jim, unlike Rose and Bobby — whose names have been changed — initially had no interest in the drone program. He joined the military right out of high school and worked in intelligence for the navy. Jim was trying to get his foot in the door with the Military Police. He had his orders, though.
His training took him to Fort Irwin, California, where he worked with an actual Heron surveilling actors in a mock village. Munitions were replaced with lasers. It was fun, like a game.
By March 2010, Jim felt confident and eager to serve his country overseas. The first leg of the his trip to Afghanistan was a long flight from Ottawa to a base in the United Arab Emirates aboard the prime minister's plane. He was accompanied by "Team Canada": stars such as Lanny McDonald, Arlene Dickinson, and Dallas Smith tasked with boosting the troops' morale.
For his final flight to Kandahar, Jim boarded a cramped and aging Hercules, but the party wasn't over yet: Out from the cockpit came a small man with white gloves, who pulled the Stanley Cup out of a box. Jim's smile stretched ear to ear as he put his arm around the trophy and someone snapped a photo.
Then the fun stopped. The aircraft made a stomach-dropping descent to Kandahar Airfield while people shouted orders.
As the doors opened, Jim was hit with bright light and the smell of human feces from the base's wastewater pit. As he dragged his belongings away from the plane and his rifle rattled on his back, a siren warning of another round of the "Taliban lottery" — a randomly aimed rocket attack — pierced the dry air.
From then on, it was mission mode.
Bobby saw his first kill less than a month into his eight-month deployment. Two image analysts worked shifts of 8 to 12 hours at a time, alongside those who piloted the drone and controlled its cameras. Once he called PID, the ambushers were taken out.
PID, the drone operators quickly learned, often meant death, and the threat of getting it wrong weighed heavy on their minds.
“Some of it can be pretty gruesome," Bobby says. He shut his mind to the possibility of processing any emotions while overseas. “It’s the only way to get through anything,” he says.
The rotations of drone operators deploying to and leaving Kandahar were overlapped to ensure a smooth hand-off. When she arrived in Afghanistan, an eager Rose was confronted with an intense argument in the previous rotation.
It was the first indication that something was off.
For Jim, the reality of his task hit him after his first kill. He had served overseas in the navy, but had never been responsible for taking a life.
The drone operators' task, once PID was called, was to hover overhead, watch what happened next, and report back. It meant staring at mangled bodies as the blood pooled around them, sometimes for hours, or watching legless men try to crawl away from the carnage.
Then came the second-guessing, the guilt, and wondering who these dead men really were. Jim had read the stories about extremists taking over villages and forcing men to join. What if the bloodied bodies on his screen were fathers, or husbands, or brothers who had joined the Taliban to protect their families from persecution?
By the halfway point in his tour, Jim had had enough blood on his hands. His team had found men digging to plant explosives. But he hesitated to call PID, and instead issued a different acronym: WAC, or women and children.
The team stood down. The Heron's eyes followed the men to a compound where they were eventually detained. No one was hurt, the insurgents had been stopped, and coalition forces seized mounds of ammunition and weaponry from inside the building. It was a different way of doing things.
"Who are you here for?"
Bobby says his team was lucky in Kandahar to have a supportive warrant officer who offered to provide guidance if the image analysts were unsure about calling PID.
Rose and Jim, who deployed later, were less fortunate. Jim's superiors questioned him when he failed to call PID. "Who are you here for?" they would ask.
One day, Jim and his colleagues spotted insurgent activity. A superior wanted to take the enemies out, but Jim wanted to keep watching and gathering intelligence. Another officer, watching the live feed from a command centre, came into the box and leaned over Jim's shoulder, instructing him to type those three magic letters.
He couldn't do it. He rose from his chair, walked to the door, and stepped outside the box. Suddenly, his body began to seize, and he blacked out, falling to the ground.
He was rushed to the hospital, where medical staff plied Jim with medication to calm him down.
About 10 hours later, officers spoke with the doctor outside Jim's room. "When can he come back to being on duty? We're short," Jim heard them ask.
He was given a day to recuperate. By then, a painful rumour had spread around the intelligence team that he wasn't capable of doing his job.
He walked to an isolated area on the base and removed his gun from its holster. There, he thought of the bloodshed. He had helped take lives and seen countless other people — allies and Taliban — injured or killed. He wanted the death and suffering to stop.
He pulled the trigger. The gun clicked.
The chamber was empty, but Jim needed to feel what it would be like to end it all.
What could have been
Rose was assigned to the night shift. In February 2010, near the beginning of her tour, she found men burying an IED in the shrubs alongside a road. She called PID, but the men weren't killed immediately — weaponry was likely unavailable. She filed a report noting the location of the IED for follow-up.
Four days later, two Canadian soldiers were injured by an explosive device in the same spot. She didn't know what had happened, only that their injuries were severe enough for them to be flown out.
It's a war, she was told. These things happen.
Furious, Rose tried to find out more about her wounded comrades afterward, to no avail. After the incident, she made sure her reports were read in the morning. Many times they hadn't been reviewed.
Jim, on the other hand, felt he could have saved two Canadians, but wasn't allowed. It was summer, and Jim and the drone crew were on an uneventful mission mapping human activity in a town.
Then, in a military chat room on the computer next to him, an intelligence report came in. Typically, translators monitoring cell phones and radio transmissions would intercept messages about insurgents watching American convoys. This time, it was a Canadian convoy.
Jim knew the Heron was only five minutes away from the convoy. The UAV's cameras, infrared equipment, and the operators' training were so advanced that they could easily spot any IEDs or insurgents nearby.
He asked if they could deviate. They were told no.
Ten minutes went by and another tipper report, as they were called, came in. "We need to go now," Jim said. Once again, the request was denied by an authority somewhere else. They were told to stay on mission.
Another 10 or so minutes went by. Then a nine-line medical report came in announcing the convoy had been attacked. It was a well-known Taliban tactic: Hit one vehicle in the convoy with an IED to force everyone out, then ambush them with dozens of shooters.
The two Canadians, who are not named here at the request of family, were in the vehicle that was hit.
As their coffins, draped in red and white, were loaded onto the plane that would bring them home, Jim — who had ended up, by chance, in the front row for the ceremony — looked on as an injured colleague of the deceased watched from a wheelchair.
"I took that hard because here we are calling PID on these insurgents and we've got no problem taking them out," Jim says, his voice beginning to rise. "But when we're on a mission where nothing's happening, [...] why we could not deviate and change our mission for 25 minutes, half an hour, whatever, to provide assistance?"
He still replays in detail what might have happened had they been given approval to help. They could have seen a spotter on a roof, perhaps, or a triggerman, or maybe an anomaly in the ground indicating an IED was below. It could have been different, he thinks.
"They're still someone's child"
“The hardest was when we came back,” Bobby says. He returned to Canadian Forces Base Greenwood in Nova Scotia in April 2010. With his family in another province and no spouse, he had only his dog to keep him company during the first half of his post-deployment leave. He says he drank a 24-pack of beer per day for three weeks straight.
“Then I started thinking at the same time about what I did over there, which made me drink more,” he says. Knowing that those he helped kill were Taliban didn't change how he felt. “They’re still someone’s child," he says.
Rose returned from her seven-month tour to Greenwood in July. Like Bobby, she had never abused alcohol, but soon enough, she was drunk by 9 a.m. some mornings.
She was angry all the time and couldn't sleep. When she did, the dreams were horrifying flashbacks to the death she had witnessed overseas.
Months later, it was Jim's turn to come home, and he was grateful. A navy medical officer had helped him get through the gun incident in Kandahar. Soon, though, the longtime seaman frequently found himself crying, panicked, and breathless.
"I had an idea why, but I didn't really fully understand what was happening to me," he says.
The military's post-deployment screening landed Rose and Bobby in the care of a psychologist in Greenwood who would not diagnose them with PTSD, despite having exhibited the symptoms. The psychologist told Rose she was fine.
By 2011, the war was winding down and the drone operation was over. Being cleared of major medical issues, Rose and Jim were sent to Winnipeg, where the team would reassemble to work for the project to buy Canada a permanent fleet of drones. They were reunited with the small, once-tight-knit team, but anger now permeated the office.
Eventually, Jim put himself under the care of the Joint Personnel Support Unit, the Canadian military's network of health centres for ill or injured soldiers. It wasn't easy — he says his warrant officer tried to hijack one of his meetings with a counselor — but he was finally getting help.
The support unit puts people on one of two paths, depending on their condition: rehabilitation with the goal of going back to work, or medical release from the military.
Jim says reaching out for help amid the fear of losing his career and a tough-guy military culture that stigmatized mental illness was the hardest part. "You're scared out of your mind," he says.
Meanwhile, Bobby remained at CFB Greenwood. He wouldn't be diagnosed with PTSD until he saw a psychiatrist — at his own request — in Halifax nearly a year after returning from Afghanistan.
He says he felt increasingly ostracized by his colleagues in the intelligence branch. “As soon as someone’s diagnosed with it, they get shunned," he says. "You know, you’re treated differently. And I was, I know I was.”
He says many of his colleagues were hiding their own issues to protect their careers. “They didn’t want their mental status affecting it,” he says.
Rose was assigned to monitor Canadian airspace for a while, then participated in a simulation at CFB Petawawa, near Ottawa. There she performed the same task she had in Afghanistan, using actual video footage from the war.
She returned to Winnipeg feeling drained and was given a break. But something about a March 2012 awards ceremony that followed — the irony of a commander giving a speech in which he emphasized getting rest, despite having called Rose off leave to attend the event, or the fact that she and her colleagues were winning accolades when everyone knew, or should have known, that their hyper-vigilance and unprecedented work ethic was a symptom of PTSD — set Rose off.
Jim was riding a tractor when he saw Rose exit the building where they had worked. Now on his way out of the military, Jim had been assigned to work on roads and grounds at the base.
"She looked like a ghost," he remembers. "She looked worse than I've ever seen anybody."
He asked her what was wrong and she broke into hysterical tears. She didn't know, she said. He told her to get medical help immediately. Instead, she went home and headed to the basement, where she began to drink a numbing mix of rum and Coke.
She looked through a box of her things from Afghanistan — T-shirts and other mementos — and the memories grew more vivid.
As she prepared to end the gruesome flashbacks, the anger, and the sleeplessness, the phone rang.
It was Jim, checking up on her.
The birds on the wire
A painted nautical star adorns the white floor of the art room in Rose's Ontario home. Above, bright orange walls are contrasted by the black silhouettes of small birds perched on a power line.
"You ever drive down an old country road and you see all the birds on the wire?" asks Rose's husband, a burly man with black hair. "All is good in the world when the birds are on the wire.”
"That’s how he asks me if I’m OK," Rose adds. "‘Are all the birds on the wire?’ If there’s any birds falling then I’m not OK."
Since her medical discharge from the military, Rose has been to in-patient programs paid for by the military and Veterans Affairs Canada, and she has seen multiple doctors. At one point, she tried to go back to school to become a welder. At the same time, a doctor suggested she reduce her medication to "feel" more and process emotions.
One morning, Rose collected the pills the doctor had told her to stop taking, drove to the LCBO, and waited in the parking lot until the liquor store opened. She bought a mickey of vodka, returned to her car, and used it to wash down the 96 lorazepam tablets.
She sent Facebook messages to her son and husband saying she was sorry, and then passed out.
Rose's husband, who's been with her every step of the way, rushed home to find the Ontario Provincial Police and an ambulance were already there, but Rose wasn't.
The police used Rose's cell phone to trace her location. They found her in the parking lot and rushed her to the hospital.
Now, Rose finds relief through art. “I’m really ashamed at some of the things I’ve had to do,” she says. She is still heavily medicated, is unable to work or go to school, and rarely leaves the house alone, but she has found a psychologist she likes.
“I lost my job. I lost my career. I lost my sense of self, put a lot of pressure on my husband, lost my identity, lost my family pretty much because the military was my family, lost hope for the future," Rose says. "Nowhere to go, nothing to do.”
Every day is a struggle, Rose and her husband say. “And I feel guilty as hell,” she says.
“But I don’t sit and cry anymore,” her husband says, forcing a smile through his thick beard.
"There are so many damaged people"
“As far as the drone program goes, there are so many damaged people from it," Rose says. "I’m really surprised that they haven’t looked into it a little more, seen what it’s done to their troops, and realized, wait a minute, something’s not quite right here.”
After her initial breakdown, Rose says an officer within the drone program in Winnipeg conducted an informal poll to see how many people had PTSD. The officer found it was 30%. “And that’s not including the guys that never got help,” she says.
Bobby, who wasn't counted in that poll, says he thinks the rate of PTSD among the approximately 100 drone operators — including image analysts, pilots, and sensor operators — is closer to 60% or 70%. "No one really understands how much impact it actually does to someone,” he says.
The rate of PTSD for all Canadian veterans of the Afghanistan war is about 10%.
The Department of National Defence refused an interview request for this story and did not answer questions about the rate of PTSD among Canadian drone operators. In response to a list of allegations made by the drone operators, spokesperson Dan Le Bouthillier provided a written statement listing the military's current mental health services.
"While CAF members have access to a comprehensive, evidence-based, interdisciplinary mental health system, more remains to be done in terms of educating our members and increasing awareness of the programs in place," the statement said, adding that the military has made "significant investment and commitment" in mental health awareness programs.
"Caring for CAF members is a priority," the statement read.
Countries with more advanced UAV programs are just beginning to appreciate the prevalence of mental health issues among pilots and analysts. Last year, British aviation expert Peter Gray said drone operators can suffer higher rates of PTSD than other air force members.
"They follow the pattern of life in a target environment, and they get so used to that, living day in, day out with these people, that when an attack has to be made, they feel it every bit as much as a pilot of a fast jet who just drops the bomb," Gray said.
Similar concerns have been raised in the United States, which operates a massive, often controversial armed drone program. Hollywood has jumped on the issue as well, with the 2014 film Good Kill featuring Ethan Hawke as a conflicted drone pilot who suffers a mental breakdown.
Dr. Jakov Shlik, clinical director of the the operational stress injury clinic at The Royal mental health hospital in Ottawa, says drone operators could be at increased risk for developing PTSD because their job requires strong visual skills and memory. “For traumatic memories, it becomes a handicap, unfortunately,” he says.
He says the support people receive after traumatic events can sometimes determine whether they develop PTSD as well. The drone operators say they never had the time or opportunity to talk things out after a gruesome kill.
For drone operators, who work from the safety of a remote location, there's no discharge of the energy and stress they accumulate either, Shlik points out. “It might start boiling up and piling up,” he says.
He says that in the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, the description of traumatic events now includes exposure to details of traumatic events, witnessed via media — especially if the person watching was responsible for what was happening onscreen.
Although Bobby masks his pain to others, the intrusive visual memories are haunting, he says. "I know what a Hellfire missile does to a person," he says. "So, you know, that’s something that I get to live with for the rest of my life, watching that."
Bobby eventually found a psychologist 45 minutes away from Greenwood who helped him begin to heal. He worked in the northernmost parts of the country that year, but the regular medical appointments meant Bobby couldn't deploy overseas. The military's serviceability policy requires that members be able to deploy anywhere at any time.
“I felt like I was forced out," Bobby says. He was medically discharged from the military in October 2014.
Now, Bobby takes a daily antidepressant and is going to school for business management thanks to funding from the military's insurer.
Jim, meanwhile, is now self-employed and recently had his first child. He found closure by getting a tattoo on his forearm. It shows a cross, adorned with ribbon and a poppy, on which are carved the the initials of the two Canadians who never came home.
When people ask about the initials, Jim emphasizes their bravery and dedication. "It allows me to help their legacy live on," he says.
"I am not God; I am not the Grim Reaper"
Despite their mental scars, all three image analysts say they stand behind the potential benefits of UAVs for the Canadian military. They provided a strong tactical advantage in Afghanistan, they say, and could be used at home for border patrol and search and rescue. "They are an amazing tool, if used appropriately," Jim says.
In the years to come, the Canadian military wants the government to spend up to $1.5 billion on a fleet of drones — and it wants them to be able to drop bombs. “There’s little point in having a UAV that can see a danger but can’t strike it if it needs to,” Gen. Jonathan Vance told a committee last week.
But Jim and Rose say the drones should not be armed. "Putting weapons on them now, that's just ridiculous," Jim says. "I joined Canada's military back when I was 17 to be a peacekeeper."
Jim says recent killing missions, such as the bombing campaigns in Libya, Syria, and Iraq, are not the Canadian way.
"That's not who we are," he says, "and to put weapons on these drones and [...] getting people like us to sit in that seat and call PID to activate that firing sequence is just wrong. You know, it's a God role."
"I am not God," he says. "I am not the Grim Reaper."
Bobby disagrees. He doesn't see the difference between calling PID and waiting for another armed aircraft to do the deed, and having the Canadian drone operators do it themselves.
All three drone operators agree that whatever happens, the Canadian military needs to seriously rethink the way it recruits, trains, and treats drone operators — and whom it puts in charge — before making any purchases.
Rose hopes the new Liberal government will listen. "I have a lot of faith in them," Rose says. "I hope they look into the past and see what happened, and see if they can make things a little better for the next group that has to do the same job.”
After this story was published, BuzzFeed Canada heard from two other people in the drone program who said the kill numbers provided by Bobby and Rose seemed high. A previous version of this article stated that Bobby felt responsible for the deaths of 40 to 50 insurgents, and Rose felt responsible for the deaths of more than 100. Jim, the third drone operator quoted in the article, said he was responsible for seven deaths. National Defence said it was unable to provide hard figures because it does not keep separate records of strikes tied to drone operations. Rose and Bobby could not be reached for additional comment. As a result of the conflicting information, we have removed the kill estimates for Rose and Bobby from the story.