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.