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
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.