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U.S. Military Drone Operators Tell Their Stories in 'National Bird'

by Maribel Lopez
May 1, 2017 | I ❤️ PBS

It's no secret that drones are probably flying over as you read this. In fact, it’s estimated that 7 million drones will be sold in the United States by 2020. You might even own a drone yourself. But what do you know about military drone warfare?

Former Army drone operator Lisa Ling tells her story in "National Bird." Photo courtesy of Torsten Lapp.

Lisa G. Ling joined the U.S. Army in 1991 at age 24 as a medic and nurse. When her computer skills shined through, she was transferred, eventually ending up in the drone program.

"People thank me for my service," Ling said in the new "Independent Lens" documentary "National Bird." "Then I ask them questions. Do you know what countries we're in? What exactly are you thanking me for? In their hearts, they really want to thank me for my service but they have no idea what that entails."

In the documentary, Ling and two other young military veterans speak out about their time working in the drone program, providing a rare look through the eyes of those directly impacted: veterans and survivors of drone attacks.

“When I first got into the military, I was thinking it was kind of a win-win," Ling said in the documentary. "It was a force for good in the world. I could actually help people. I could go places. I could learn things. There was nothing negative about it at the time. I thought I was going to be on the right side of history and today, I don’t believe I was.”

Ling's final deployment was as a drone surveillance system technical sergeant on a Distributed Ground System. DGS is a weapons system that uses drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs, to collect vast amounts of data and find and kill targets.

Military Drone pbs rewire
An Afghan survivor of a U.S. drone air strike with his son in "National Bird." Photo courtesy of Torsten Lapp.

If you aren't very familiar with drones, there are different types and they're controversial for various reasons. Some believe military drones can be a precision tool for keeping us safe and eliminating dangerous terrorists. Others believe drone technology is flawed and doesn't allow for proper decisions to made on targets before firing, equating their use to war crimes. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates a minimum 425 strikes in Pakistan since 2004 accounting for 2,500 to 4,000 deaths, with an estimated 400 to 1,000 of those being civilians.

Ling and the other veterans featured in "National Bird," struggle with the guilt of participating in the killings of faceless people. She said she lost part of her humanity in the drone program and argued that if the only connection we have to warfare are “wires and keyboards, why stop?”

In the documentary, Ling travels to Afghanistan with her Afghan neighbor as a way to make reparations for her participation in "a program that’s a huge, huge weapon system that kills more innocent people than actual targets," she said in the film.

There’s no way I can make amends or change anything I participated in but if there’s any way I can somehow give back to that country, that’s what I want to do.”

Ling served in the military for more than 20 years. She said she believes today’s young people who face high costs of living and higher costs of education often join the military because they feel it’s their best option—that “this is their one opportunity to get an education, to make a better life.” She suggested that anyone considering joining the military to stop by their nearest college, go to the veterans center and talk to people other than a recruiter before signing up.

Watch “National Bird” from "Independent Lens" on PBS or beginning May 1.

Headshot of Maribel Lopez Director of
Maribel Lopezis a lifelong public media fan and as director of Rewire, oversees the site’s strategy and operations. When she isn’t catching up on the latest digital publishing trends, she enjoys traveling, flamenco dancing and going on adventures with her doggos.
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