Battle Creek is an old facility, dating back to 1924, and its exterior has a creaking sort of beauty. On the inside of the lockdown ward, though, every surface is painted the same putty color. Andy's mother took me into a central room where nurses in old-fashioned uniforms pulled enormous rings of keys from their pockets, unlocking each door they passed through.
When Andy walked in, I didn't recognize him for a moment. His blond hair had turned dark and retreated from his face, which seemed the color and consistency of glue.
We embraced. "This sucks, man," he said. He seemed to veer between understanding his illness and clinging to the delusion of rejoining his elite colleagues. So we talked about other, familiar topics. The wars, my work, my family, and his hope to reassemble some sort of life with his son. But then in a shrinking voice he told a story I hadn't known, about what happened after Mullah Omar's forces had ambushed his team from three sides outside Kandahar.
Andy had stayed awake through the night, pushing his mind with calculations and navigational cues, dropping bombs by the planeload on anything that approached. The day after the ambush, he and the Special Forces team peeked over a ridge and saw a village – the village from which the ambush had launched, they felt sure, and so Andy called in air strikes on several Land Cruisers he could see. Land Cruisers, he knew, meant Al Qaeda.
Later, after the team had come down from the ridge and entered another village a couple of miles away, Andy saw a figure coming over the horizon: a man carrying a little girl whose jaw had been blown off by a bomb. The man had walked two miles with her in his arms to ask the Americans for help.
Andy stood nearby as the Texas 17 medic tried to put the girl's face back together, then loaded her onto a helicopter headed back to an American outpost. Something about seeing the girl's small body lying across her father's arms – something in her smallness, the shape and drape of her body – had sent a terrible jolt arcing from one synapse to another in Andy's brain and across two decades of his life. No matter what the guys around him said, Andy knew better: I did this.
Andy fought in Afghanistan on behalf of all 300 million Americans, and each American owns one-300-millionth of every bomb he dropped. But unlike the rest of us, he lives with the consequences.
There's hope for Andy. Right now he's allowed to leave the Battle Creek hospital for two days a week, with permission. Then he'll gradually move to an off-campus apartment and to independence, though he'll continue to be treated by doctors at the hospital for the foreseeable future.
Not long ago he called with an announcement: "I've got a date!" he said. "First one in years. It's with a third-grade teacher."
Wonderful news. And when he feels ready for it, I said, I've still got the box with his stars inside. Awards for bravery and gallantry from a former life.
"Just hang on to 'em a little longer," he said. "I'll come visit soon."