We should have seen the demons in Andy about the time he pulled out his night-vision monocular and crawled under my house. Instead we just stood around in the dark.

That was seven years ago. Andy Kubik had recently returned from Iraq and dropped by for lunch because a mutual friend thought we might get along. Stationed at an Air Force base nearby, he rumbled into my small Alabama town on an enormous black Harley, like Thor returning from war. Even before everything that followed, even before the cracks started to show, Andy seemed like a man formed from two conflicting types of clay: the heroic and the vulnerable. The godlike and the human. He removed his helmet and goggles, revealing his curled blond hair, and transformed into something smaller and quieter, apologizing for the noise before he dismounted.

After lunch that day, Andy spent three nights on our sofa, which spooked my wife. Relax, I told her. This guy's a war hero. One of the greatest alive, maybe.

Andy worked for the Air Force as a sort of supersoldier. He had fought in covert operations and killed bad men in scores, and according to the Air Force itself, Andy's actions in Afghanistan – his personal actions – "were overwhelmingly responsible for breaking the back of Taliban resistance." So if the guy needed to crash, he could certainly use our couch.

I pestered him for details about his life overseas – had he worked alone? in a team? – but Andy showed far more interest in the mundane details of our lives. The make of our daughter's crib, the maddening sound of a stray cat mewing under the house, the history of our little town. "My wife would love this," he said one day, sitting in the kitchen. I hadn't known he was married.

Conversation drifted with Andy. From backpacks to foreign policy to photography. Books, movies. "My son loves that one," he said. I hadn't realized he had a son.

"You may be wondering about this scar on my face," he said one afternoon. We hadn't noticed, we said. "Right here," he said, touching the left corner of his mouth, where his lips met with a certain indistinctness, as though someone had erased and redrawn the line. "It's no big deal," he said.

One day Andy pulled out a small rucksack. "I want to show you something," he said.

He dug around for a moment, then found photos from Afghanistan, shots of the dozen or so Special Forces and British SAS operators who made up his team. He talked a bit about what happened there, mostly funny stories about surviving Afghan food. I remember the watchful way he laughed; he never closed his eyes or looked away.

Later, after dark, Andy and I sat on the porch, and he showed me his night-vision monocular and something he called an infrared pointer. I hadn't realized the military let people carry these things around back home in America. While my neighbors slept, Andy's laser danced over their roofs.

Beneath the house the stray cat wailed. I hissed something about waking the baby and threw a lump of grass into the dark crawl space. Andy frowned and flicked on the monocular.

I remember how funny that seemed at the time. How cool. The warrior, the thunder god, stooping to combat a stray cat after enduring years of real war.

Soon enough, though, we'd see that the war wasn't done with Andy.

A few months after his first visit, Andy showed up at our house again. "I want you to hold on to something for me," he said. He would soon leave the Air Force, he said, and head to West Virginia. He had a plan but wouldn't elaborate. I understood; being Andy's friend meant accepting redacted conversations. He lived in a classified world.

He hauled out an opaque plastic box, about the size of a suitcase. "I'll send for it later," he said, "but I know you'll keep it safe."

Sure, Andy, I said. I'll keep it safe.

Later that night I lay awake and wondered: What on Earth is in that box?

To understand Andy – to understand what comes later – you've got to first understand what he did.

During wartime, when the U.S. secretary of defense goes before the American people and wants to present a clear idea of our supremacy, of our precision, of our ability to project power from the West onto our enemies abroad, he'll sometimes show a video clip. It's usually taken from a plane or unmanned drone and shows a missile hitting some impossibly small target. A moving car, maybe. A rooftop chimney. Some Taliban fighter riding his horse through a mountain pass.

What you don't see in those videos is the real conductor of the action. There's often a man hidden across the street or on the mountainside, tracking the car or chimney or horse with an infrared pointer – kind of a high-tech version of a laser pen – to help guide the missile. He's called a combat controller, and his job in the Air Force is to link the cleanness and geometry of the sky with the bloodiness and disorder on the ground. It's his job to parachute, sprint, spy, shoot, evade capture, and dodge bombs, all while running a stream of mathematic calculations in his mind and maintaining an even tone of voice over his radio. It may be the most nerve-racking, dangerous job in the world. And Andy Kubik excelled at it.

His first true test came in May 1999. At the time NATO forces were seeking to end Serbian aggression toward Albanians in Kosovo. One night an American pilot was flying his F-16 over Serbia to bomb a missile installation when an enemy missile exploded near the plane and sent it spiraling down into hostile territory. The pilot parachuted out, scrambled into the brush, and called in his dire situation: Serbian forces were searching for him, and they had dogs. Back across the border in Bosnia, Andy and his small rescue team piled into three helicopters and launched toward the downed pilot, flying without lights, using night-vision equipment. Soon after liftoff three surface-to-air missiles corkscrewed past the nose of the chopper, like "flaming telephone poles," Andy said. As the team crested a ridge, they passed over a dark village that suddenly awoke with muzzle flashes. The helicopter that Andy was in swung and rolled to avoid the fire, with Andy kneeling at the open door as bullets thunked into the bottom and sides of the craft.

The helicopter touched down in a clearing, and the F-16 pilot burst out of his hiding place in the tree line and sprinted toward it. As Andy leaped out, enemy gunfire erupted, and Serbian soldiers – closer than the Americans had realized – swarmed the site. The rescue team, bristling with assault weapons and adrenaline, heaved the pilot onto the chopper's floor. As they lifted off again, Andy and two other soldiers lay across the jet pilot to shield him from incoming bullets. An hour later the helicopter reached the Bosnian border just as the sun rose, and warmth splashed in through the open doors.

It was the sort of harrowing, high-speed mission that most normal soldiers rarely face. But for Andy it was only a prelude.

He grew up in Harbor Beach, a small town at the edge of Lake Huron in Michigan, and he navigated a hazardous childhood. At four years old, he climbed behind the family sofa without anyone noticing. He pulled an extension cord from a lamp, put the plug into his mouth, and bit down. The plug blew a hole through the side of his face; you could see his teeth through his cheek. Later he would wonder whether the shock had electrified his brain as well.

He started kindergarten as the boy with the burn on his face. A prominent scar remained for years, through some of early life's already difficult moments – playground negotiations, meeting girls, class pictures – until he had his final surgery at 14, which reduced the mark to a thin line near his mouth.

"He was self-conscious about it," his mother, Kathleen, told me later. "I think especially around girls."

For a while after the electrical-cord accident, Andy's childhood passed in the typical way. He played sports, but not particularly well. He earned average grades. He played with his friend Gautam and Gautam's little brother, Vivek, who lived across the creek that ran through their neighborhood. They were his sworn brothers, and he even traveled with their family on a trip to the father's native India. They, along with Andy's younger brother and sister, became inseparable and ruled their neighborhood from a secret underground fort.

One day in September 1986, when Andy was 13, heavy rain turned the creek into a raging river, and the makeshift bridge was uncrossable. The children walked farther down to the mouth of the creek, which emptied into Lake Huron, and Andy waded into the water to cross it. The heaviness of the current surprised him, and he rode it like a waterslide, laughing. The other children followed, and soon the current swept three of them – Andy, Vivek, and Gautam – into the cold Huron.

They swam against the flow, treading with thin legs, but it swirled away from the shore and separated the boys. Gautam and Vivek both cried out for help from their bigger friend – "Andy!" they called – and he paddled between them as all three drifted into deeper water. Neighbors on the distant shore heard their screams and shoved a rowboat into the water. A siren wailed somewhere in town. The swollen creek spewed milk jugs and driftwood and litter, and amid the trash the boys rode the current toward the lake's uninterrupted horizon.

Andy and Gautam were strong enough to keep their faces above the water as the rescue boat approached. But eight-year-old Vivek slipped under several times, and then one last time as Andy reached for him in vain. By the time the boat pulled Andy and Gautam from the water, Vivek had disappeared. For the next several hours, Andy stood on the shore wrapped in a blanket as rescue workers continued to search. Then he watched as a man walked up from the waterline with Vivek's small and lifeless body draped across his arms, and no matter what the adults around him said, Andy knew better: I did this.

In the years that followed, he became fascinated with codes of power and protection. He took a keen interest in the loyalties of Mafia families and Japanese Bushido, and then, as he got older, the brotherhood of modern small special ops military teams. At 18 he joined the Air Force and tried out for the arduous, specialized combat controller program. There are only 400 combat controllers in all the Air Force, and they employ every skill from HALO (high-altitude, low-opening) parachuting to underwater sabotage. They are among the most expensive soldiers produced by the American military.

At the bottom of an Olympic-size pool at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, Andy Kubik found what he needed. As he and other hopeful candidates tried to crawl across the pool's floor, instructors called "sharks" held them down, punched their kidneys, cut free their weight belts, and dared them to drown. An instructor ripped off Andy's face mask and chopped his neck so that Andy's breath billowed around his face, escaping to the surface. Blinded and stunned, he lay still on the bottom. As other candidates gave up to instinct and surfaced, Andy relented to the sensation of drowning. The perfect penance of the moment approached: So, Viv, this is what it felt like.

Eventually the instructor released him, and Andy crawled with his fingertips toward the opposite wall. He emerged from the water reborn, with a new set of sworn brothers and a lifelong pain now hardened into loyalty.

One day in late 2003, not long before he left the Air Force, Andy invited me into a restricted area on Hurlburt Field in Florida, where his elite squad lived.

He introduced me to his colleagues – including one man who has asked to be identified only as "Y," and whose significance would later become clear – and showed off his team's astonishing array of weaponry and technology. It all looked so impressive that I laughed when I saw several miniature black off-road motorcycles parked around the staging area. They looked like toys. Then Andy told me their purpose: He and his teammates would strap parachutes onto them, push them out of airplanes at sometimes high altitude, then jump after them. On the desert floor the men would ditch their jump gear, mount the small bikes, and ride into the mountains.

Over the next two days, I would get a glimpse of who Andy really was. That first night his team joined a visiting group of foreign soldiers for the special ops version of an international trade conference. They all loaded into two Pave Low search-and-rescue helicopters, an AC-130 gunship, and a couple of trucks, then charged over the countryside toward an abandoned building. Once there they rappelled from the hovering helicopters, charged into the structure, and rescued a mock captured soldier. The team sprayed bullets – live ones, not blanks – as they stormed in darkness onto the roof, where invisible helicopters descended and cut the air into buffeting layers. I scrambled to keep up; Andy handed me his night-vision goggles, and for a moment I saw a rarefied world of activity: aircraft, weapons, soldiers, all waging war in an artificial daylight.

The next night in Florida, the soldiers withdrew to a nearby hotel, where they had reserved a block of rooms. Andy waved me toward an empty one, where someone had set up a mobile video monitor. "Wanted you to see this," he said. He cued a video, then left the room. On the screen a scene flickered into view: a man, alone and facing the camera, inside a wind-whipped tent somewhere near Afghanistan. The man wore a long beard over hollow cheeks, and his eyes burned like cave fires, deep in their sockets. I looked more closely: Andy?

A sharp voice from outside the frame announced that the following was an intelligence debriefing. The questioner then hustled Andy through an account of recent clashes with Al Qaeda. Something significant had happened, but the acronyms and obscurities piled up so fast I couldn't keep pace. They talked about technology, largely, and cooperation between the military and the "OGA" – Other Government Agency, as the CIA was sometimes called in Afghanistan.

The video stopped and I sat, bewildered. I hardly recognized the man on the screen. The Andy I knew was amiably distracted, always drifting, sometimes rambling. The Andy onscreen – the bearded, wolfish one – was as bright and focused as the infrared pointer in his rucksack. What exactly had happened over there?

One morning in 2001, Andy awoke at his home in Florida to a thought fully formed: "The 15th anniversary of Vivek's death."

He climbed to his feet and made his bed. "Same memories, every September 11."

He made a cup of coffee and turned on his television, where he saw the horror of the day unfold. The second plane's appearance heralded, even in the instant between impact and fireball, Andy's new covert mission.

He and his wife, Tina, immediately geared up for rapid deployment. She worked for the Air Force as a kind of advance procurement officer, heading out with a teammate and a suitcase full of cash to set up an overseas launch site for men like Andy. Within a few days, she would enter an electronics store in Oman and announce, "I need to buy your batteries. All of them."

As the Twin Towers smoldered on the family's television, Tina packed her bags. The day she left, Andy turned to see their five-year-old son, Travis, standing at the hallway door. He had gone to his bedroom and put on an army helmet and backpack, and in his hand he held a small American flag.

Andy snapped a photo, a single frame that captured all that would propel him through the next few years. He waved goodbye to Tina, and her parents picked up Travis for safekeeping. Andy retreated alone into the house, sank to the floor, and wept.

Two months later Andy hit the ground in southern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border, attached to a 12-man Special Forces team called Texas 17. A helicopter dropped the soldiers into the mountains where they linked with three CIA officers, took account of themselves, and realized the challenge before them. They faced what was surely the hardest job in the world: to approach and take the city of Kandahar, the Taliban's stronghold where Al Qaeda now massed. Unlike in the north, where the indigenous Northern Alliance had battled the Taliban for years, in the south the team would have to create a fighting force from scratch as they ran full tilt toward their target. Along the way they would escort and protect Afghan warlord Gul Agha Sherzai.

Meanwhile Andy's counterpart – the man I have to call "Y" – entered Afghanistan with a team named Texas 12 on the northern side of Kandahar. Their job was to escort exiled leader Hamid Karzai, already identified by the U.S. as a key potential ally, into the city.

According to the plan, the two teams would converge on Kandahar, Andy's from the southeast and Y's from the north, and oust Osama bin Laden and the Taliban's one-eyed supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar. Then they would install Sherzai as governor of Kandahar and pave the way for Karzai to become president of Afghanistan.

On its first day in country, Texas 17 set out across the desert for Kandahar, stopping in small villages along the way to pick up any sympathetic young men to gather an ad hoc army. The night and second day passed the same way, as the team assembled a sort of rolling circus: a hundred or so pickup trucks, motorcycles, tractors, and Central Asian "jingle trucks" decorated with bells, mirrors, and rugs. The Special Forces captain formed the impromptu troops into a V-shaped convoy so they could race across the desert without suffocating on dust.

But the Americans faced two larger problems: how to arm the group and how to secure Sherzai's trust. A cache of weapons falling from the sky would do both. On the team's fourth night in the field, Andy helped arrange an air drop into a hidden, narrow valley secured on three sides by a horseshoe of steep mountains. As the team prepared for the drop, one of their Afghan fighters approached with a finger to his lips and whispered, "Taliban." A crowd of Afghans parted, and Andy saw three men tied together and sitting on the ground. He and the captain quickly reeled back, not wanting to be seen. But one Taliban man looked up and made eye contact; he wore black makeup smeared under each eye, and Andy felt a powerful sense of foreboding.

At the same time, an F-16 pilot radioed something about a nine-vehicle convoy quickly approaching. Before the team could make sense of all this, the mountains around them erupted with gunfire from the convoy. Mullah Omar's forces had set an ambush. Bullets and rocket-propelled grenades poured onto the valley floor as Andy leaped into the backseat of a truck, calling for air support and swiftly realizing that the batteries had died in his radio. He couldn't get word out.

The valley was too narrow to turn around in, so the trucks shifted into reverse as .51-caliber anti-aircraft fire rained down in sheets. Their only hope of getting out alive depended on quickly summoning air support to take out the enemy on the ridge. With no time to replace the batteries and call in coordinates for a bombing run, Andy reached for his flare gun and fired a signal light out of the truck and onto the mountaintop. The F-16 streaked past, and seconds later a cluster bomb frothed the summit. The military designates such strikes as "danger close": so close that troops risk death by friendly fire. Even the pro-American Afghans screamed, crying out to Andy for mercy, because they had never seen nor felt such power, so near and so almighty.

Eventually the mountains fell quiet, but another F-16 pilot warned that a second convoy was approaching from the north, and this one numbered 35 vehicles. Andy grabbed his infrared pointer and night-vision scope, and with an Afghan lieutenant, he climbed the mountain they had just scorched. By then the vehicles had arrived and started turning out their headlights to blend into the night. "They've joined your convoy," the pilot said.

For another two hours, Andy stayed hidden on the mountaintop, passing his goggles to the Afghan leader so he could identify the unknown vehicles and men, then paint them with his infrared pointer until bombs arrived to blow them apart. He killed scores that night.

At daybreak Texas 17 pushed onward to Kandahar. Adrenaline coursed through Andy's veins and bathed his brain. He stayed awake, fighting without rest, for the next four days.

As Texas 17 fought their way to the city from the south, Y and his team to the north, Texas 12, suffered a disastrous mistake. A member of Y's group programmed his GPS unit with coordinates for a bomb strike. After Y turned in for a few hours' sleep, the teammate replaced the GPS's battery as a matter of caution. He didn't know that when the GPS shuts down, it automatically resets to new coordinates: its current location. So when he turned it on and called in bombs that morning, he called for an attack on Texas 12's own position. Eight people, including three Americans, died in the blast. They were the first three American soldiers killed in Afghanistan.

Hamid Karzai survived after being knocked unconscious, and Y was injured badly enough that he had to be evacuated.

Andy's subsequent advancement on Kandahar – clearing the way for both the city's governor and Afghanistan's future president – required a shocking sort of courage. His tiny team took Tarnak Farms, the Al Qaeda training ground featured in the group's propaganda videos and where it's believed September 11 ringleader Mohammed Atta recorded his final testament. The team sacked Kandahar, drove Mullah Omar from his palace, and cleared the airport so that American forces could establish a base there in coming days. On top of the airport control tower, a member of the unit dipped a broom in black paint and wrote texas 17 to mark that they'd been there – an inside joke for special ops colleagues back home, who would later watch hundreds of soldiers "take" the airport on television.

"More than 200 Marines have set up a forward base, known as Texas 17, at the airport," a British newspaper later relayed, misunderstanding the signal, "which was the scene of the last stand in Kandahar of the foreign Taliban fighters believed to be loyal to Osama bin Laden."

The world never learned what had really happened – the bravery of Andy and his small team in seizing the key city – but quietly, a couple of years later in a hangar in Florida, then Secretary of the Air Force James Roche awarded Andy with the Silver Star and described his actions as being responsible for breaking the Taliban. And he had done it all without suffering any apparent injury.

andy's first encounter with his demons came in late 2003. He'd returned from war and found that while home seemed the same, he had changed.

He rode entire nights on his motorcycle, 16 hours at a time, and found that only by keeping the throttle wide open could he stay focused on the present moment and stave off the onslaught of memories. His family crumbled around him – the strain of military life and Andy's darkened mind-set had driven Tina to move out and take Travis with her – and Andy flung himself ever faster through the night. In a library in Baghdad, Andy had come across a book by T.E. Lawrence and felt an immediate kinship. Lawrence himself killed many men during the First World War and later died with his motorcycle's throttle wide open. "In speed we hurl ourselves beyond the body. Our bodies cannot scale the heavens except in a fume of petrol," Lawrence wrote. "Bones, blood, flesh, all pressed inward together."

Andy drew his last Air Force paycheck in January 2004, but he had no desire to settle down and get a regular job. Some of his colleagues had joined the CIA, but the agency initially rebuffed Andy. In a bid to make himself more attractive, he decided to enter a master's program in national security at Georgetown University. But first he needed to finish his bachelor's degree, and at school in West Virginia he saw a young Middle Eastern couple. She was Iranian, he was Pakistani, and Andy became convinced they were watching him. "I saw them sweep me," he told me. "I was like, 'Fuck. They're in West Virginia.' "

The two halves of Andy's brain wrestled for control, teetering toward insanity and back again. "I gotta live with these people," he said, laughing at his own paranoia. "I can't just become a white supremacist." But then something would tilt his mind again. At school one day, he spotted two teenagers breaking into his car. He felt sure they had stolen the paper he'd been working on that spelled out how to improve international joint special operations. In Andy's mind, they hadn't simply broken into his car; they were agents who had violated national security. He gave chase but the kids split up, and the one he nabbed was empty-handed.

Over the next couple of years, Andy spiraled out of control. He flunked out of school in 2004. His divorce became finalized shortly after that. He picked up jobs in landscaping and construction but was fired from both. And in December 2004 he was hospitalized for the first time, for a month, because of his deteriorating mental state.

Andy had developed an obsession with the CIA. He felt his experience in Afghanistan had given him invaluable insight – inexpressible, secret "solutions" – that the CIA needed to implement. Solutions that would give the West an advantage against terrorists everywhere. He mixed real and imaginary, practical and abstract, to create nonsensical theories that baffled his relatives and friends. Most of us think of military intelligence as a collection of information, but Andy had used it as a dirt-covered, hands-on tool. He had seen the miscommunications, the interagency misfires, the wasted opportunities, and from that he spun new ways to kill bad guys – everything from agency hierarchy to helicopter attack formations to filing a patent for a body-mounted remote-controlled spy drone.

He called one day in the summer of 2007. "Do you remember us talking about the OGA?" he asked.

I did.

"Well," he said, "you're sending me signals about that, right?"

I stood on the front porch in my socks and wondered what to say.

"Like, guiding me," he said. "Right?"

For years now I had guarded Andy's mysterious box. I had dragged it from house to house, from state to state, every time we moved. Finally I decided to look in it. It held the tailings of a life now falling apart: a layer of sand from Afghanistan. Various Arabic headdresses. Several sheets of Mullah Omar's personal stationery, which Andy had grabbed after overrunning his palace in Kandahar. A photo Andy's wife had given him to carry of her in lingerie. Drawings Travis had sent. And two little leather cases that held his now forgotten Bronze Star for bravery in Serbia and his Silver Star for "gallantry and devotion to duty" in Afghanistan.

No, I said, I wasn't sending any signals.

"Cool," he said. "Just wondering."

Then he said goodbye.

One day a few years ago, he traveled to Ohio to watch his son play hockey. At the time Tina still allowed Andy to spend time alone with the boy.

The day of the first game, Andy and Travis sat together eating lunch, and Andy felt a growing sense that someone planned to assassinate Travis. "Give me your hamburger," he said, shoving his club sandwich across the table. "You eat mine."

At a game the next day, Andy noticed the local newspaper photographer on the arena floor. Sure that the man was surveilling Travis, Andy snatched his camera cleanly and hid it in a locker room. Someone called the police, and as they arrived Andy tried to escape. In the process he broke a window and slugged an officer. The police shot him with a Taser and found a weapon of sorts hidden under his jacket: At the hotel where he was staying, he had taken a corded phone from the wall – something he could swing like a medieval flail – and wrapped it around his waist.

Andy would land in jail two times over the next few years for incidents stemming from his paranoia. His training made him dangerous. One time, for instance, his guards discovered he had covertly mapped the jail and stashed a pen in his cell as a weapon.

Several times Andy ended up in hospitals, where doctors tried round after round of medicines in vain. His hypervigilance and paranoia were "horrific, frustrating, fearful, helpless," according to his mother. "The inability to go into his world and bring him out... To see the anger in his eyes or, at times, the blank stare."

The only thing that seemed to work, Andy discovered, was cough syrup with dextromethorphan. It disgusted him, and the taste sometimes made him vomit. But Afghanistan had exploded his psyche like a fragmentation grenade, and cough syrup, he told me at one point, "slows everything down and defrags my memories."

In the span of an hour or two, he once drank three full bottles.

In February 2009, Andy launched one final mission.

Dearborn, Michigan, just outside Detroit, is home to one of America's largest Arab communities, and Andy decided to travel there and advise the authorities on his solutions. He envisioned coordinating and building a super-intelligence unit headquartered in the suburb – among America's Muslims, instead of its politicians and lobbyists – with no other purpose than to hunt Al Qaeda.

Before he deployed, he met his mother at a small restaurant. At first he refused to speak aloud, and instead passed her a note that said simply, SIXTEEN AGENCIES. DEARBORN. And she knew, as she watched him walk away, that her son might not survive this time.

Later, driving back to his apartment in Ohio, Andy felt sure someone was following him. He took an evasive route. Inside his apartment something seemed amiss. Jazz music leaked from his radio. Someone has been here.

He stuffed cash and clothes into a rucksack and fled to a friend's house. A solid guy, a retired Air Force guy, who could give him a place to hide out. But there was no one home, so Andy slipped through the open back door and waited in the living room. Then he heard it again: jazz music, from the same radio station. Dear God.

Andy stole his friend's old Mercury station wagon and launched toward Michigan. He stashed the car at the Detroit Metro Airport, in the short-term parking lot, and hailed a taxi to take him into downtown Detroit. He eyed the driver when he pulled into a substance-abuse clinic in suburban Franklin instead, possibly sensing Andy's troubles. This made Andy even more paranoid: What does this driver know? Where is he from? Andy threw a hundred-dollar bill over the seat and walked into the clinic, to appease the watchful taxi driver. He grabbed the clinic's phone and dialed 1-800-FUCK-OFF.

Did these people really think they could corner him so easily?

He slipped out of the clinic and ditched his rucksack in a trash can, saving some cash and his military identification card. He crept into a nearby racquetball club and in the locker room grabbed a duffel bag full of clothes. He then entered a golf-equipment store and within about 20 seconds emerged with a stolen jacket and a set of keys. He pressed the key's panic button, and a Dodge Charger lit up down the block. He climbed in, then noticed a baby seat strapped into the back. Can't take this one. Can't involve children in war.

He walked to a store where construction was being done on the roof, and he found a set of keys and a dog in the crew's work van. He let the dog out, fired up the van, and took off as the men yelled from the roof. He drove about an hour, evading his enemies until the van started to sputter. He parked it in an industrial park and set out on foot, walking for hours through wooded areas, moving parallel to an expressway, and watching for signs of surveillance. He slogged through creeks; the sun had set hours before, and temperatures dropped to about 20 degrees. He ignored the pain of the cold and changed into the clothes he had stolen.

He came across a concrete-making company and squeezed inside its gate, where he found an old snow-covered Chevy Blazer with the keys inside. He pulled a knife from his pocket and cut his military ID into pieces, then pulled out a driver's license he found in the pocket of the jacket from the golf store, transforming himself into respectable citizen Ray Lawson, of Rochester, Michigan.

By now it was night; the lights on the Blazer didn't work and the door wouldn't stay shut, but he drove it until it died too, then hid it behind a local bar. As he climbed out of it, a piece of exposed metal tore one leg of his wet blue jeans from his buttocks to his ankle. Dangerous cold. But Andy's training from survival school stayed with him: Keep moving forward.

Police stopped him as he walked down a frozen road and asked for identification. "Where have you been tonight, Mr. Lawson?" one of the officers asked.

"Down at the bar with buddies," Andy said, chuckling. "Could you guys give me a lift home?"

They called him a taxi instead, and as the sun came up Andy had the driver let him off in a nice golf-course community. Then he followed a woman into a nearby construction office, pulled her keys from her purse when she wasn't looking, and wheeled away in her black Jeep. He needed to find a safe place, and fast.

He decided to make his way to his mother's lake house, but along the way he drifted to sleep at the wheel and almost forced another car off the road. Gotta stop. He pulled over. Gotta rest. Police found him passed out on the wrong side of the road.

Breaking and entering. Interstate grand larceny. Identity fraud. Trespassing. Credit card theft. The list went on. The prosecutor and judge took one look at Andy and realized something in him had gone wrong. There's a catch-22 in the system, though: The judge couldn't just release Andy back into the public; he was dangerous and needed to be imprisoned, if only to protect himself. But Veterans Affairs won't take over a jailed soldier's case until he's released. The ensuing bureaucratic disentanglement took months, leaving Andy in jail and his family discouraged almost to the point of despair.

Andy wasn't a criminal. He was broken.

This past June I visited Andy at the VA hospital in Battle Creek, Michigan, where he now lives in confinement. For years he bounced in and out of VA medical-treatment centers and received care that often seemed, at best, inattentive. But now doctors are working hard to unlock his mind with new drugs and therapies. They have not yet issued a specific diagnosis, but he's being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse, among other things, and a private doctor told him he showed symptoms of delusional disorder.

Battle Creek is an old facility, dating back to 1924, and its exterior has a creaking sort of beauty. On the inside of the lockdown ward, though, every surface is painted the same putty color. Andy's mother took me into a central room where nurses in old-fashioned uniforms pulled enormous rings of keys from their pockets, unlocking each door they passed through.

When Andy walked in, I didn't recognize him for a moment. His blond hair had turned dark and retreated from his face, which seemed the color and consistency of glue.

We embraced. "This sucks, man," he said. He seemed to veer between understanding his illness and clinging to the delusion of rejoining his elite colleagues. So we talked about other, familiar topics. The wars, my work, my family, and his hope to reassemble some sort of life with his son. But then in a shrinking voice he told a story I hadn't known, about what happened after Mullah Omar's forces had ambushed his team from three sides outside Kandahar.

Andy had stayed awake through the night, pushing his mind with calculations and navigational cues, dropping bombs by the planeload on anything that approached. The day after the ambush, he and the Special Forces team peeked over a ridge and saw a village – the village from which the ambush had launched, they felt sure, and so Andy called in air strikes on several Land Cruisers he could see. Land Cruisers, he knew, meant Al Qaeda.

Later, after the team had come down from the ridge and entered another village a couple of miles away, Andy saw a figure coming over the horizon: a man carrying a little girl whose jaw had been blown off by a bomb. The man had walked two miles with her in his arms to ask the Americans for help.

Andy stood nearby as the Texas 17 medic tried to put the girl's face back together, then loaded her onto a helicopter headed back to an American outpost. Something about seeing the girl's small body lying across her father's arms – something in her smallness, the shape and drape of her body – had sent a terrible jolt arcing from one synapse to another in Andy's brain and across two decades of his life. No matter what the guys around him said, Andy knew better: I did this.

Andy fought in Afghanistan on behalf of all 300 million Americans, and each American owns one-300-millionth of every bomb he dropped. But unlike the rest of us, he lives with the consequences.

There's hope for Andy. Right now he's allowed to leave the Battle Creek hospital for two days a week, with permission. Then he'll gradually move to an off-campus apartment and to independence, though he'll continue to be treated by doctors at the hospital for the foreseeable future.

Not long ago he called with an announcement: "I've got a date!" he said. "First one in years. It's with a third-grade teacher."

Wonderful news. And when he feels ready for it, I said, I've still got the box with his stars inside. Awards for bravery and gallantry from a former life.

"Just hang on to 'em a little longer," he said. "I'll come visit soon."