SYRIA, Va. – Residents of Syria, a small town along Virginia’s Old Blue Ridge Turnpike, got an unexpected taste of Obama’s drone war this weekend when five U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drones experienced a network glitch that caused their GPS and targeting systems to malfunction. The drones, each carrying a full payload and preprogrammed with a mission package and targeting data, were headed to Joint Base Andrews in Prince George’s County, Maryland for deployment to the Middle East.
Meanwhile, Ed and Maude Hackell arrived at the U.S. Post Office on Old Blue Ridge Turnpike early Saturday morning to mail a card to their eleven year-old grandson in Des Moines, Iowa. “Every month we send him a little money for his college fund,” Maude later told WRLH-TV, Richmond’s Fox affiliate. While Maude waited in the couple’s Buick, Ed went into the Post Office to buy a stamp. “He was only in there for a minute or two,” Maude said, wiping tears from her eyes. The elderly woman described feeling overwhelming heat and seeing a blinding flash before she lost consciousness.
When she came to, Maude found herself bleeding from a head wound and trapped inside her overturned Buick which had been thrown more than a hundred yards from the post office parking lot. The post office itself, along with Ed and thirteen other patrons, was completely obliterated when a 500 pound GBU-38 “smart” bomb, known as a JDAM or Joint Direct Attack Munition, struck the facility. At the same time, vacationers staying at the Graves Mountain Lodge, located no more than half a mile from the Post Office, were desperately searching the rubble for signs of life after at least two AGM-88 HARM tactical air-to-surface missiles hit the family owned retreat.
William Buckley, a sixty-four year-old electrician, was driving south on Route 670 towards Rose River Farm when he spotted two Reaper drones flying low over Rose River. “At first sight I thought they were RC airplanes,” Buckley said. But then the unimaginable happened. The drones fired a volley of AGM-114 Hellfire missiles into the farm, destroying at least a dozen structures including several cabins, and killing sixty-three people. “It was death from above,” Buckley said.
In all, one hundred and ninety-three people, seventy-eight of them children, were killed in the drone strikes Saturday. The Department of Defense declared the event a “national security incident” and FEMA, while preventing media access to the town, has since taken over recovery efforts.
Pentagon officials declined to comment on the incident citing national security concerns, but a defense official with knowledge of the drone program, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Washington Post that, rather than a hardware malfunction, the tragedy may have been the result of human error. “From above, the terrain is very similar to what we’re used to overseas,” the official said, adding that many of the structures appeared “run-down” or dilapidated.
Last Thursday the United States conducted its first successful drone strike against the Islamic State in Syria from the Incirlik joint air base near Adana, Turkey. Historically, only reconnaissance missions were flown out of Incirlik but earlier this month Turkey formally agreed to allow U.S. and other coalition fighter aircraft access to their bases.