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O'Neal, bracing for his own death, suddenly heard pain in Pat's voice. A moment of silence passed, then he heard what sounded like water gurgling down the hill, felt his shoulder dampening.
O'Neal turned. It wasn't water. It was a river of blood. The back of Pat's head was gone.
Oh my God! Oh, my God!" Russ heard O'Neal screaming when the shooting finally ceased. Russ saw O'Neal yanking off his helmet and trying to tear off his bloody clothes. Russ then saw platoon mates go over toward O'Neal with a stretcher and carry a body down that hill. But Russ's mind refused to ask whose body it was or to add things up, because one plus one would equal devastation.
He pulled security for three quarters of an hour, his eyes scanning the terrain for the enemy to make sure the ambush was over, his head still in the sand. A vehicle pulled up, Kevin perched in the turret. He'd been far to the rear, in the last vehicle of Serial 2, and knew nothing about what had happened to Pat or the two other Black Sheep, Uthlaut and his radio operator, who'd been wounded, possibly, by the spray of bullets from that lead GMV. He kept asking where Pat was, wondering why he hadn't heard his brother's booming voice, but no one, as yet, had found the courage to tell him. "Hey, what's up?" Kevin finally called out to Russ. Just then, a sergeant approached Kevin and said softly, "I'm sorry, I hate to be the one to tell you this ... but your brother was killed."
"What?" said Kevin. "What? ... WHAT?"
All at once Russ felt as if there were a black hole inside of him, sucking everything into it. He watched a helicopter take away Pat's body; a second one came for Kevin. Quietly, in small groups, the men began comparing their versions of what had occurred. The unspeakable realization began to grip the Black Sheep. America's most renowned soldier was dead, and they had killed him.
Thoughts, at last, began to form in the fog of Russ's mind as he awoke the next morning. Damn, he wondered, how could that have happened, a total clusterf---, with men of this quality, men he respected and loved, Army Rangers? Sure, you squeeze off a few rounds in the direction your squad leader fires--that's understandable. But then you're taught to scan and wait, identify an enemy target before you start blazing again. Why had so many guys just kept shooting and shooting? But he hadn't been in their shoes, seen or felt what they had while roaring out of that trap in the canyon and thinking they were running into the ambush's second wave. Some of them would say later that the light was bad, that all they could see were shapes and muzzle fire because the sun was setting behind that hill. Some--not unlike Pat's old football teammates, wide receivers Pat had flattened during light-contact scrimmages--felt that Pat had been overaggressive, placing his team at risk, even though he had received permission for the position he'd staked.
The sun rose on their silent camp. Russ saw the haunting in those gunners' eyes, and he felt sick for them. They'd been hung out to dry--all of them, he felt--by leadership decisions made back at the FOB.
The platoon headed back there that day, and the haunting only grew worse. Notices went around, high- and low-ranking soldiers alike called to testify in the Army's initial investigation into Pat's death. The Black Sheep wept and couldn't sleep, one of them growing dizzy at each reference to the horror. They gathered in a large room with a chaplain and officers to vent--a "critical incident stress debrief," in Army lexicon--where they yelled at each other, then talked and cried on each other's shoulders. A colonel told some of them that everyone was to blame, not any individual. It wasn't enough. The platoon, Russ felt, was destroyed, the men in it damaged for the rest of their lives.
Russ missed the stress debrief. As the Tillmans' closest platoon mate, he was chosen to escort Kevin on a flight to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, to stare for hours at that refrigerated coffin. The two men flew in silence, Russ under orders to say nothing about the incident, "until we get the facts," and Kevin still assuming that the enemy had killed his brother, too stunned and grief-stricken to ask Russ for details.