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
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?