What the War Did to Andy
Since last June, Andy Kubik has been living at a VA hospital in Michigan, where he's been treated for PTSD and substance abuse.
Credit: Andy Ryan
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.