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Life As A 'Drone Warrior'


Brett Velicovich spent much of his time during five tours of Delta Force duty in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places in the box, as he calls it, a windowless bunker filled with flat-screen video monitors showing images captured by cameras on drones. He hunted for terrorists and suspected terrorists to capture or kill. He's written one of the first memoirs of a new age of warfare, "Drone Warfare: An Elite Soldier's Inside Account Of The Hunt For America's Most Dangerous Enemies." It's written with the journalist Christopher Stewart.

And Brett Velicovich, who received a Bronze Star for his Army service and now advises on the use of drones to save wildlife in East Africa, joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

BRETT VELICOVICH: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: So what's life like in the box?

VELICOVICH: It's exhilarating. It's sad. It's wild. There's never a minute of rest. When you're standing there, you're basically - if you can imagine being in a Best Buy, you know, with TVs on the wall and we're watching targets - watching everything they do and watching them go to sleep, wake up, eat breakfast, send their kids to school. And then we watch them basically drive a car into a market and kill a bunch of innocent people. So you know, we see a lot of things that not many people should have to see in their lifetime, but that's our job.

SIMON: I notice you say targets. And I don't want to make too much of this, but those are people.

VELICOVICH: Yes. These are human beings, and it's a terrible, terrible thing to take a life. But at the same time, the people we were going after - these are some of the most evil people in the world. They would have no qualms about coming in here and killing every single person - man, woman and child. And so yeah, we refer to them as targets. But we very much know that these are human beings. And not only do we see the evil in them, but we also see the humanity. With drones, it's changed the way we see people. We see them from different angles. We now can make a conscious decision. Yes, this person deserves to be captured, or he deserves to be killed.

And one of the things that will surprise a lot of people about it in this book is when you think about drones, you think about just taking life, killing all day long. And the truth is, drones are mostly used for capture, you know. We had to be very, very precise. We weren't out there using these things necessarily to kill people. We were there to capture guys in, you know, groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Qaida with the whole intent of getting the vital information from them to basically break apart the network.

SIMON: You talk in the book, as you mentioned earlier in this interview, about the the very intimate look you can get into the lives of people who were being surveyed. And I've got to tell you, at times reading about that, it was a little creepy.

VELICOVICH: (Laughter) Right.

SIMON: I mean, you saw people relieving themselves...

VELICOVICH: Oh, God, everything...

SIMON: ...Kissing...

VELICOVICH: ...People having having sex on the roof, you know. We had guys - you know, people that were going to get ice cream cones. Like, I saw one of the top leaders in Islamic State just, you know - you don't think of him, like, getting a vanilla ice cream cone and getting all this foam on his beard and things like that. And - or, you know, we see the guy who's pumping a bicycle tire for his child. And then you see, like, the real creepy stuff they do, where they're going and killing people.

And so watching that over and over again - I don't want it to sound like it's this - you get this PTSD thing or that, you know, I came back, and I was like oh, my gosh, what have I done? The psychological toll that that takes on someone like me is more of this burden of I wish we got more of them.

You know, I would come back from these deployments. I'd be 50 to 60 pounds lighter. I would be ghostly white. People wouldn't recognize me. You know, there were guys in the box with me that would have beds built next to their computers because they didn't want to take the time to go back to their room 'cause they were worried they were going to miss something on the screen. After a while, you just get obsessed - if you miss that guy that day or you don't find that target, that he lives another day to kill innocent people. And so that's heavy. And it was something I had to get over when I got out.

SIMON: Did you ever make a mistake?

VELICOVICH: We all made mistakes, but we're trained not to make very many. When people always ask me, you know, how many innocent casualties were there? Obviously, you know, women and children are getting hurt from these things. And, you know, what's an acceptable number of casualties? And I always say there is zero. There is no number of acceptable civilian casualties from a drone strike or an operation that a drone is used in. And when these mistakes happen, they just - they devastate us. But at the same time, one of the reasons I wrote this book is I wanted people to know that the guys behind drones and the guys that are out there - they're fighting for Americans every single day.

SIMON: It sounds like drone warfare was never just a video game to you.

VELICOVICH: To me, it was much more than that. I mean, yes, I sat behind a computer. I wasn't the guy that was kicking down the doors. I wasn't the Navy SEAL Green Beret running into the hail of bullets. Like, those guys are superhuman. But the way I saw it was that their lives were in my hands. Think about how, like, wars like in Vietnam were fought. You didn't know what was a hundred yards in front of you.

Now we can say, listen, this house has two military-age males. They're carrying AK-47, and they're waiting. They know you're coming, you know. They're in this corner of the house. It's going to change the way wars are fought for generations. We'll never fight another war without drone technology. But the future of drones is not war. That will always be part of it, but the future of drones is not war. It's going to be commercial use. That's where, now, the drone industry is going.

SIMON: Tell us what you're doing in East Africa.

VELICOVICH: Sure. So now I work with consumer drones all the time. My biggest passion projects now are talking to people about how I can take drone technology and use it for good. So I'm always looking for new humanitarian projects to go help out with. And so I was just in Africa. Last month, I was in Somalia, and I was actually working with the Somali Police Force. And I was showing them how they could use a consumer drone to sniff out bombs in the road doing what we used to call route scans. Right?

You could go scan a route and look for potential bombs that were along a road that the soldiers were about to drive. And so that was what I was doing there. And then we have a project called the African Eye Project, which is - a lot of people don't realize how bad this wildlife crime is. You know, it ranks up there with human trafficking and drugs. It's a very big business. You've got these endangered species in Kenya, elephants and rhinos, and they're being killed. And so I've taken what I've learned, and I've adapted the drone technology to create a positive impact on humanity. And that's what I've dedicated the rest of my life to.

SIMON: Brett Velicovich - his book, "Drone Warrior" - thanks so much for being with us.

VELICOVICH: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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