The Little Bird settled down and the chaplain, shrink, and crew chief stumbled off to look for a pee chute, just a crusted over PVC pipe stuck in the sand on the side of the runway.
I got my legs after watching the dangerous beauty of the crags and peaks from a helicopter in rural Afghanistan. Who am I kidding, all of Afghanistan was rural. Even the heart of Kabul with blown-out buildings and goat carcasses hanging in front of butcher shops was rural. But I liked it. I liked cinching up my boots, strapping on a nine mil in a non-issue holster, and walking from our big tent down the crudely nailed boardwalk to an even bigger tent. I was in a real-life western.
I was with the SEALs, the guys who later found and killed Usama Bin Laden. I am sure of the discussion—there was none—UBL would not be coming back with them in anything but a black bag.
But the first time I saw a black bag was at the end of that helo flight. In front of me were two soldiers fighting, one grizzled enlisted guy, one chaplain. I couldn’t hear them from the rotors of the copter. And that black bag rolled along the tarmac before the bird ate it up along with a lone soldier wandering behind like a puppy looking for someone he lost.
Just a few hours earlier I stood in the TOC, Tactical Operations Center, the biggest tent of all. And the clean-cut officer asked me if I would go down and meet the company of Rangers who just lost a fallen team member. “Sure, what’s his name?” And the clean-cut officer went back inside to get official approval before returning to tell me, “Pat Tillman, you heard of him?”
“The NFL guy?”
Pat Tillman left a four-million-dollar contract on the table to join the Army Rangers and join the fight after 911. He was famous in and out of the community. People loved him, some hated him. A long-haired, smart as a whip liberal who left a beautiful wife and dream life to take on something bigger than himself. He found it.
And there was me, a short 50-year-old Navy psych in altered uniform and a full beard sent from regiment, which spells outsider, “E-N-E-M-Y.” I’ve dealt with resistance all my career but this was something different. The battalion had a secret and they didn’t want me to know. They didn’t want anyone to know, not even Kevin the lost puppy, Pat’s brother.
In the days to follow Kevin called back to his unit and got told the same thing, “We don’t know everything yet, when we do you will be the first to know.” Even his buddies were told to lie or rather, just don’t say anything.
So, I sat with the guys most hurting. With the sarge and with Pat’s battle buddy. In short, the company split to maneuver around a mountain but one half took on an ambush. Pat and his buddy left their secure position and moved up the mountain, behind some rock. “Why, I asked him?” “Because we’re Rangers,” was what he told me, “It’s what we do.” The other half of the company came to reinforce and the machine gun mounted on a turret atop one vehicle strafed Pat’s position. A 50-caliber bullet is bigger than your thumb and leaves a hole bigger than a child’s fist.
Everyone knew. It was friendly fire. No one would say it. No one could say the Rangers, a lower tier of the Special Ops community who vied for a bigger role, just killed its most famous soldier since the King Phillip’s War. I knew too much too soon.
I was sent to bring the group together, to begin a process so guys could deal with the death but the command struggled to keep the guys from talking so they could gather their facts, so they could get their narrative, so they could fight another day.
Such a senseless killing. A specialized unit sent out to retrieve a disabled vehicle in the heart of wild Afghanistan controlled by Taliban. Just blow it up, just take the sensitive equipment, just don’t languish three days in the back country, and don’t telegraph your route. No one asked why until the gun powder was spent.
One killing was enough to convince me no death no matter how small or insignificant is smaller than the reason no matter how large. I wanted out. A grieving mother, a distraught wife, a life snuffed. Patton said, “The secret to winning is not to die for your cause but to get the other s-o-b to die for his.”
The two guys arguing when I first landed? They were arguing about me, and wanted me out of there and fast. When the CO, the Colonel showed up, that’s what he did, he put me back on the next helicopter and sent me packing after a moving missing soldier formation. Pat’s boots, his weapon, his helmet between his company and his support.
Eventually Pat’s family was told the truth, but the disinformation already did its damage. Truth, you may know, is the first casualty in war. The young battle buddy, scarred, the involved members all scattered to different units. The CO of the Battalion made Colonel and the Colonel of the Regiment made General. The family made funeral arrangements.
Today I ran with a few F3 battle buddies on the beach of Emerald Isle. Four point two miles, Pat’s college football jersey number, to mark the moment he died, to remember the life he led, to revere the ideals for which he stood. It was a virtual run, held each year by his foundation to raise money for college scholarships.
Yes, I believe there is sometimes a good reason to offer our life. When Pat was in training, an officer recalled at his memorial service, he ran ahead of everyone in full armor but he stumbled and fell. Most would stop, take time to collect themselves and regroup. But this gifted athlete, rolled and was on his feet. Still in pursuit, still ahead of his team.
After the speeches, we lined the darkened airfield at Bagram for a hundred or more yards and the body bag, now encased, made its way between us, passing by a cascade of synchronized slow salutes. Slowly onto the plane, slowly back to Arizona, slowly lowered into the ground. Gone too soon.
Pat was Icarus who flew too close to the sun. He offered his life for his battle buddy; he gave it for his team. Pat was a Ranger, it’s what he did, it’s who he was.
They promoted him, they gave his family a medal, they told their lies and took back their body bag.
The good reason? “Because we’re Rangers, it’s what we do.” Despite the ugliness, the lies, and the machine; it’s as good as any. But it’s still not as good as the loss.
Join me on Facebook Live 9am and 9pm weekdays to hear my miraculous account on the Appalachian Trail, When Sunday Smiled. It now has its own inspirational song and is up for Best Christian Memoir. Also, look for my next book coming out later this year. Check out both on my website, Andymdavidson.