By Laila Kearney
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Lethal U.S. drone strikes in the Middle East are fueling hatred towards the West and spurring the expansion of Islamist militant groups such as ISIS, a group of former U.S. military airmen said on Thursday.
Four former drone operators have written an open letter to President Barack Obama, asking him to reevaluate his administration's use of drones, which critics say can engage innocent civilians and drive angry survivors into militancy.
"You harm these people, and they're going to want revenge," former Staff Sergeant Brandon Bryant, who operated drones for the U.S. Air Force Predator program between 2007 and 2011, said at a news conference in New York.
Supporters of drone strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq say they are highly accurate, and that they spare American soldiers from the dangers of on-the-ground combat. A representative for the Pentagon did not respond to a request for comment.
Bryant and the other former airmen said they often killed non-combatants inadvertently and had the impression they were considered cowardly by relatives of victims, and that the survivors often sought revenge on the West for what they considered pointless deaths.
Bryant, who has spoken out against the strikes since leaving the program, described negative effects on the Americans who controlled drones to execute deadly strikes.
Michael Haas, a former senior airman who trained other U.S. drone pilots, said operators become desensitized because they conduct strikes from a distance, sometimes half a world away from their targets.
As an example of the callousness they developed, Haas said operators sometimes used the term "fun-sized terrorists" to refer to children in target areas.
In response to the psychological trauma, Haas said many operators developed alcohol and drug addictions.
"This isn't a videogame," Haas said. "When you fail and kill the wrong guy... you (can't) start over again."
All four former servicemen, including former senior airmen Cian Westmoreland and Stephen Lewis, said they suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Attorney Jesselyn Radack, a former ethics adviser to the U.S. Department of Justice who is representing multiple former drone operators, said all her clients suffer from PTSD.
Most are unemployed, Radack said, some are homeless, and many have substance abuse problems. They can also have difficulty accessing disability benefits because they did not engage in on-the-ground combat.
"(It) is a huge problem that this program is leaving people in such a state," Radack said.
(Reporting by Laila Kearney; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Ken Wills)