About halfway through the deployment, we got word that we were to prepare for a new recce mission, one that had special significance for the Ranger regiment. We were to recon the compound harboring the suspected Taliban leader who’d planned the Pat Tillman ambush, so that it could be assaulted by a Ranger strike force. Pat had been an NFL player who’d quit his high-paying job as a professional athlete to become a Ranger, making national headlines by doing so.

I had never actually met Tillman; he was maybe one or two cycles ahead of me in training. I saw him once in the Ranger regiment chow hall, but that was about it. I did speak to guys in his battalion when I was in pre-Ranger, getting ready for Ranger School, and they told me that Pat Tillman was a good guy—the real deal. So I was shocked when, after Ranger School, I went into an internet café in a small town where I was backpacking in Costa Rica and saw on the front page the news of the day: Pat Tillman had been killed in Afghanistan. Initially it was reported that he was killed by the enemy in a firefight, but later on it came out that Tillman had been killed by friendly fire. Fast-forward to the winter of 2004–05: Now we were looking for the guy behind it.

I worked with Paul, the assistant recce team leader; Grant, the recce team leader; and their recce team on immediate action drills, rehearsing what we would do if we got ambushed, if a vehicle was disabled, if both vehicles were disabled, and other contingencies, down to simple things like changing a tire. We got our desert tiger-stripe uniforms and pakol hats, which have flat tops and a roll of fabric that goes around the top of your head, to disguise ourselves as Afghan paramilitary soldiers. The plan was to drive our vehicles down to the Pak border and link up with the paramilitaries at their border control point (BCP). From there we would team up and accomplish our mission of laying the groundwork for Charlie Company to conduct a direct-action raid and police up this guy who had been involved in the Tillman ambush.

The recce team rolled out with two attachments, an Air Force JTAC and me as the sniper. We began the long drive down to the Pakistan border and the Afghan BCP, passing through the Khowst bowl, a large, flat, open area surrounded by mountains on all sides. Nomads—or Kuchis, in the local language of Dari—lived in what looked like gypsy camps out on the flat expanse. From there, we entered more remote, untamed areas, driving through dangerous switchbacks and steep valleys. As I mentioned, there were times when it truly felt like you were on another planet.

We drove across golf ball-sized stones at the bottom of a narrow valley and rounded a bend. A stream ran through the valley, and a woman wearing a burka knelt beside it, washing her dishes in the water. Ancient terraces rose up on either side of the valley, making use of a complicated system of irrigation to grow crops. Toward the top of the valley were adobe huts that seemed like they were built right on the rock face.

Around another bend, we entered a forested area with thick pine trees, eroded ledges, and undergrowth pouring out toward what passed for a road. A lone man wearing a pakol and a vest stared at us and walked away. We descended into canyons with marijuana plants growing on both sides in thick fields. We climbed up the side of mountains, narrowly passing by flatbed trucks loaded with lumber cut from the surrounding areas. On several occasions, we drove through valley passes that were so narrow our Hiluxes barely made it through. There was no way the wide-framed U.S. Army Humvees could make it through this terrain. One pass looked like it had been dynamited open not that long ago. It was easy to see how the Afghans trapped invaders inside mountain pass after mountain pass, wearing them down by attrition with ambush after ambush.

We arrived at the BCP, which looked like a Vietnam-era firebase surrounded by sandbagged positions and concertina wire. We occupied the CIA team house, which was empty at the moment. We had brought two mortar men, who went about setting up their 81mm mortar and their fire direction center to help support our recon mission. Afghan paramilitaries were…curious. In that part of the world, the locals would vigorously deny that they were homosexual, but they would grab each other’s dicks right in front of us, giggle, and cuddle. One of the younger recce guys told me that they were just trying to see how we’d respond.

The first day, I was left behind at the BCP; there was not enough room in the Hiluxes for all of us plus the Afghan translators. That night when the guys came back, I ate an MRE and had a really bad stomachache. When it was my shift on radio guard, I remained awake after my hour was up and manned the radio just because I knew I wouldn‘t be able to sleep—I figured the other guys could continue to rest. Eventually, I woke up Grant, who was next on the rotation, and I think I drifted off for an hour or two.

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