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.