Bauer called Pat.
The urge to return to a simpler, cleaner battlefield, to swap uniforms again
and race into a stadium rocking from the thunder of 60,000 throats, rushed
He called Bauer
back a week later. No, he told him. He hadn't fulfilled his commitment. He
hadn't yet tasted live fire.
Every day, when
Russ turns on his computer, he sees that photo of Pat in fatigues, his face
buried in a watermelon, sucking life to the rind ... two days before his death.
And Russ is right back there, in southeastern Afghanistan in spring 2004, when
the Black Sheep became snake eaters--roughing it with the natives, mingling
with them to get tips and going through villages house to house to flush out
the enemy and their weapons.
You couldn't relax
your guard, not even when villagers were smiling and shouting, "Eh,
America!" and pushing cups of tea into your hands, not even when Afghan
coalition forces wearing old U.S. Army fatigues were hopping into your Hummer
and grinning. Every sensory neuron kept firing, scanning for danger, because
every grin, every teacup, every uniform could cloak a bullet or a bomb meant
But there was Pat,
in his second week of poking into the shadows of mud and stone hovels that
might be crawling with Taliban fighters, accepting a chunk of watermelon from
an Afghan and smearing his face in it, tasting it and smelling it and feeling
it drip off his nose.
would the midnight coffee Russ shared under the stars that night with Pat and
Kevin become charged with meaning: their final one together. Having learned
from Navy SEALS he had met in Iraq, Pat had turned their ritual into art,
pulling out a little Coleman stove, a French press and a packet of his favorite
beans. They laughed long and hard that night, never dreaming that the machinery
of death had already been set in gear, that a busted fuel pump on one of the
platoon's ground mobility vehicles (GMV) was its first grinding cog.
A new fuel pump
arrived by airlift later the next night. The unit mechanic installed it the
following morning, but still the GMV wouldn't start. A decision was made to
pull the vehicle with tow straps, but after a few hours on those dirt roads,
the shocks, struts and steering were shot, the vehicle immovable and the Black
Sheep marooned in Magarah, a half-dozen dried mud and rock houses, staring at a
real soup sandwich.
Hours began to
slow-tick away in the heat of April 22. If only Pat could wander off on his
own, with a compass, backpack and weapon. He'd come back with Osama bin Laden
and Saddam Hussein both, his friends would joke--although some weren't joking.
First Lieutenant David Uthlaut, the Black Sheep's crackerjack platoon leader,
e-mailed a request to the Forward Operating Base (FOB) for a Chinook to swoop
in, harness up the disabled GMV and ... well, the chopper could drop it in the
Indian Ocean for all he cared.
gathered, eyeballing the Black Sheep. Sure, it was a hoot when several Rangers
paired off with villagers and flopped in the dirt to wrestle, and when Pat
trounced Magarah's finest in a rock-throwing contest. But Uthlaut's dilemma
became dire. His commanders at the FOB, fearing the GMV would become a
propaganda trophy, wouldn't let him abandon the vehicle, nor could they spare a
Chinook to sling-load it away. So grenade the sonofabitch, groused his men, but
then everyone's tails would've been in a sling.
Rangers, a dozen vehicles and the six Afghan soldiers attached to the unit sat
alongside a creek, watching fields of blue and red poppy flowers glisten in the
sun as morning turned to late afternoon. The officers at the FOB, impatient,
pressed Uthlaut: Solve the damned problem and get boots on the ground in nearby
Manah, the last village on the Black Sheep's checklist for that sector, then
return to base for reassignment. A crowd of Afghans gathered and listened when
a local tow-truck driver appeared, offering to winch the busted GMV onto the
back of his vehicle and haul it to the nearest highway, where it could be
handed off to American forces coming from the FOB.