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One day, God willing, Russell Baer was going to tell his son this story. One day, after the boy's heart and brain had healed, he was going to point to that picture on the kid's bedroom shelf of the man doing a handstand on the roof of a house, take a deep breath and say, Mav, that's a man who lived a life as pure and died a death as muddy as any man ever to walk this rock, and I was there for both. That's the man, when your heart stopped for an hour and they slit you open neck to navel, who I prayed to because ... well, because you wouldn't exist if he hadn't died, and I wouldn't be half of who I am if he hadn't taught me how to live. That's Pat Tillman, the man you take your middle name from, and I've been waiting for you to ask since the day you were born.

Russ never got that chance: Maverick Patrick Baer died on Monday. So now Russ has Pat's story stuck in his heart. ...

Maybe it's best to keep it simple, to start with the day Russ first laid eyes on Pat, keep the moralizing to a minimum and let everyone figure out what Pat's story says about human beings and fear and the country in which we live.

Start with the day, in December 2002, when the big green duffel bags hit the ground in front of the barracks at Fort Lewis in Washington, followed by the boots of the new Rangers joining Russ's platoon, the Black Sheep. Russ watched them, trying to guess which one of the cherries was the famous football player, the one—truth be told—he had never heard of until his mates began saying, "Did you hear? Pat Tillman's been assigned here."

Maybe it was because Russ wasn't raised on the religion of NFL Sundays, or because the whole world disappears for a man once the Army begins melting and molding him into a Ranger, but somehow—even though he had grown up only 40 miles from Pat's home in San Jose—Russ had never heard of the guy or his much-ballyhooed decision to walk away from the Arizona Cardinals and a $3.6 million contract to enlist in the aftermath of 9/11. So 22-year-old Private First Class Baer kept quiet and listened to the chow-hall chatter.

"I'll treat him just like a normal person," one platoon mate vowed.

"He's nothing special," said another. "I'll make him do push-ups."

"That dude was stupid to give up football," more than a few said. "I'd never do that."

Pat's younger brother, Kevin, fresh out of the Cleveland Indians' farm system, was coming too. Likely a couple of meathead jocks, Russ thought, remembering the big-shot athletes at his high school in Livermore, Calif. It wasn't hard to pick out Pat from the pack of rookie Rangers: Had to be the guy carrying those big green bags into the barracks as if they were marshmallows.

The newbies—Rangers who hadn't undergone the last and harshest phase of the weeding-out process required to become "tabbed Rangers"—spent those first two days scurrying like headless chickens, stammering and spilling socks from their bags as officers barked at their heels, outraged by gear that wasn't tied down properly, unit identifiers that weren't sewn onto everything just so. Not the Tillmans. They didn't rattle.

But a man can't walk into a Ranger unit with Pat's self-assurance, reputation and anvil jaw without every antenna on the base going up, probing for arrogance. Russ conducted his own reconnaissance, poking his head into a smelly little squad room to watch Pat receive his lessons. Man, he walked away thinking, he liked Specialist Tillman. Humble, soft-spoken, polite, tuned in; swift to volunteer for crap chores, swift to knock out the 25 push-ups the punks four years younger than he was—but with one more stripe—ordered him to do.

A week later Pat and Russ started bantering at the shooting range, and Pat laughed that unforgettable laugh—his head jolting back, his eyes disappearing into that crinkly face, his hands clapping his thighs, a high-pitched hoo-hoo-hoo-hooooooo howling from his throat until his lungs gasped for air—the laugh of a man who didn't give a rat's ass what you thought of him or the carnival.

Damn, Russ could talk Allen Ginsberg and Ralph Waldo Emerson with a big-time jock Army Ranger. He could let loose a side of himself that he'd bottled up the day two years earlier when he signed his enlistment papers, the Russell Baer who holed up in the latrine with his journal, or on an off day hunched over a coffee and a book and a notepad among strangers in a Seattle café. Pat loved oddballs—writers, hippies, hermits, weed-smoking ballplayers—who weren't afraid to show their asses, loved reading their quotes and anecdotes aloud and declaring, "Now that's something to live by," then scrawling a salty retort in the margin. At first it jarred Russ, whose reverence for literature didn't let him lay ballpoint to book page, but then he began to do likewise.

Pat just had that way, with colonels and coaches and Nobel Prize winners, too, of slicing through rank and reputation, of turning every encounter into nothing more or less than two human beings talking. Hell, the guy introduced himself to strangers simply as "Pat," and if they asked what he did before strapping it on for Uncle Sam, he'd say he studied some back at Arizona State and quickly ask about them, never mentioning the summa cum laude or the Pac-10 defensive player of the year award, and certainly not the NFL. And still, something about him made you walk away wanting to learn more, laugh more, run more, give more.

Who else showed up in a college assistant coach's office at 1 a.m., asking what he thought of Mormonism with such zest that both ended up reading the Book of Mormon so they could discuss it in detail? Who else in the NFL or the U.S. Army took a book everywhere, even on 10-minute errands, read The Communist Manifesto, Mein Kampf, the Bible and the Koran, so he could carve out his own convictions ... then bought you the book and picked a philosophical fight just to flush out some viewpoint that might push him to revise his, push him to evolve? Gays, for instance. By the last few years of his life, his narrow view of them as an adolescent had so altered that he would argue they were the most evolved form of man.

Most people, Russ felt, are just pieces of everybody else, off on some mimic's mission all their lives. It's as if there's a padlock on who they really are and just a few figure out the combination and then the whole damn thing pops open, the treasure of possibility becomes theirs. That was Pat, so ... so ... hell, even his mom, Mary, when she tried to get her arms around him, would just end up throwing them in the air. He was the most respectful gutter mouth you ever met, the politest man ever to reach across a restaurant table and dunk his sticky hands into your glass of water. So playful and so serious, so transparent and so mysterious, so kind and so frightening, so loud and so silent ... so juxtaposed, Mary would say. So at ease with himself that he could meet you wherever you were.

Where Russ was, just one week before the Black Sheep shipped out for the Iraq invasion, was on his belly in the rain on the shooting range, up to his elbows in mud and frustration, unable to dial in the optics on his SAW gun and hit the damn target for his weapons qualification even though he'd been handling that machine gun with ease for more than a year. Then Pat dropped to his knees and began encouraging him. Russ had spent most of his first 22 years marinating in negativity. His mother had cleared out five months after his birth, and his father, a 14-year Army man, had remarried eight years later to a career military woman with a short fuse. Russ had swallowed her anger, turned numb, then begun turning that anger outward, getting into fights and blaming others for his troubles, drifting from one school to another until age 16 ... then dropping out of school and home as well, moving to his grandparents' house, working three jobs and homeschooling himself, searching for some model of the man he ached to be.

Maybe he'd finally found that man. Russ relaxed as Pat knelt beside him, then realized that a loose screw on his sight was causing his misfires and began banging bull's-eyes. Their unit packed up a few days later, removed its mascot from the wall—the mountain sheep's head that accompanied 2nd Platoon, Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment everywhere it went—chucked it into a parachute bag and flew to Saudi Arabia. Pat, Kevin, Russ and the Black Sheep were going after Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction.

No, Russ isn't proud of this part, but it's too important to skip past. It happened in a tent in Saudi Arabia on the day the Black Sheep took perhaps the war's first casualty, just before the invasion began. Russ and Pat, monitoring radio reports from buddies who'd slipped into Iraq by helicopter, listened as the chopper crew chief was shot and one of their platoon mates took a bullet that ricocheted off his sternum and exploded out of his shoulder.

So here it was at last, the specter of death, the dry mouth, the beginning of the self-discoveries Russ had signed on for. Discovery 1: He wasn't ready. As the grim news crackled, he grabbed a mate's Maxim magazine, fixed his eyes on a naked woman, nudged his neighbor and said, "Hey, look at this chick."

It was as if Pat saw right through the surface—the callous perv—to the core: a kid walling off his fear. Pat reached over, took hold of Russ's hands and said softly, "Can you please put that away? Some of our guys are getting hurt right now. We need to focus on them." Russ nodded, grateful to be called back to his better side without being shamed.

It began that day for Russ, the long raggedy curve that it takes to turn a life around. A man could be strong and soft at the same time, he realized. He could manage fear by looking straight at it, could take charge of a moment in the most unmilitary of ways, without bristling or bellowing.

The Black Sheep followed the invasion into Baghdad, spent their days pulling perimeter security around the airport and going house to house in search of the Iraqi leaders pictured on the infamous 52 playing cards, and their nights flinching from the pigeon crap raining through the shrapnel-shredded hangar where they slept. Pat was so inclusive, so interested even in the screwiest private, that any pettiness in the platoon began evaporating; the Black Sheep became tight. Trouble was, Russ so treasured his time with Pat that he couldn't bear to share it with some of the knuckleheads gathered around him. He'd wait until they'd fallen asleep or flaked away to their video games and skin magazines, then beeline toward Pat and Kevin. One would glance at the other two and say, Let's have a coffee and—bingo—the Baghdad Book Club was in session, three men talking literature and ideas to the far side of midnight, Pat's eyes glittering just as they did during all-night conversations around a fire in the front yard of his childhood home whenever he returned there.

That's how they found themselves atop a bunker south of Baghdad late one night in March 2003,on the eve of the rescue of Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch, knowing a bloodbath might await them the following night, when they would encircle the hospital in Nasiriyah where she lay wounded. They sat there, perched above their sleeping mates, watching the Marines bombard a town five miles away, drinking in the beauty of a desert sky strobe-lit by the explosion of 155-mm shells.

Russ didn't know yet that Pat had written to his mom, delighting in the serendipity of having found a little brother in his platoon named Baer. "Bear" was what Pat and Kevin had grown up calling their youngest brother, Richard, the one so upset when Kevin began talking of enlistment that he'd hurled a 24-pack of beer against a wall behind Pat's house near Phoenix and began running, only to trip and fall flat on his face. But Russ felt so much brotherly trust and caring that night in Iraq that he offered to read to Pat and Kevin from his own notebooks, his Latrine Letters. They loved Baer's seething snapshots of life as a Ranger in a savage place.

Let's all just f------ scream
and attempt to stretch our
already shrunken hearts.
We've all got cruel intentions
climbing up our throats,
ready to spit into the eyes of any savior
that's already 15 minutes too late.

You didn't talk politics over there, not while you were still in the sandbox. But that night, as Pat watched another orange and white flash-bang shudder the distant town, he shook his head and said, "This war is so f------ illegal." Russ, for the first time, realized how wobbly a tightrope Pat was walking between his integrity and his duty. Even later in their 3 1/2-month deployment in Iraq, as it began to appear that they'd been sent on a nukes-and-biochemical-weapons wild-goose chase, Russ never heard Pat go further than, "This is all bulls---." But surely Pat's fame and fierce independence had unsettled higher-ups from the day he enlisted. They had tried to persuade him to be a recruiting poster boy in Washington rather than a Ranger. Surely, one family member was convinced, once the Army got its first glimpse of Pat's psychological profile—he was the one who stood outside the Cardinals' team prayer circle, the one who couldn't wait to have a mutual friend arrange a meeting with renowned anti-war leftist Noam Chomsky after his discharge—it never would have allowed him to become a Ranger if it hadn't had to because he was Pat Tillman. Hell, at the Army recruiting office the day he enlisted, before he'd even signed his papers, one of those jalapeño drill sergeants lined up Pat, Kevin and a gaggle of other recruits and started fire-breathing contradictory orders. "Look, you're confusing everybody and being unreasonable," Pat told the astonished sergeant. "You're treating us like ass----s, and we haven't even signed up to be treated like ass----s yet." At first it was a curiosity to Pat, then an irritation, when he kept receiving orders to undergo additional psychological evaluations.

Everybody who thought he'd enlisted purely out of patriotism, they missed reality by a half mile. Sure, he loved America and felt compelled to fight for it after more than 2,600 people at the World Trade Center were turned to dust. But his decision sprang from soil so much richer than that. The foisting of all the dirty work onto people less fortunate than an NFL safety clawed at his ethics. He had uncles and grandfathers on both sides who'd fought in World War II and the Korean War, one who'd taken a bullet in his chest, another who'd lost a finger and one who'd been the last to leap out of a plane shot from the sky. On a level deeper than almost any other American, he'd reaped the reward of those sacrifices: the chance his country afforded him to be himself, all of himself.

He yearned to have a voice one day that would carry, possibly in politics, and he was far from the sort of man who could send others into a fire that he had skirted. His relentless curiosity, his determination to live his life as if it were a book that would hold its reader to the last word, pushed him into the flames as well. The history of man is war, he told his distraught brother Richard, so how, without sampling it, could he ever know man or himself completely? "Are you f------ crazy?" was all Richard could splutter.

Some people, only a few, decide early in their lives that the world will remember their names. Some people—fewer still—understand that the cleanest and most powerful way to do that is by never asking the world to remember their names, by letting their lives do that. "Let people find things out about you," Pat told B.J.Alford, his roommate and teammate at Arizona State. "Don't tell them." In Pat's first journal, at age 16, in one of his first entries—11 years to the day before he died—he wrote, I consider myself an atheist, however, in the back of my mind, I wonder if there is something greater. I feel as though I am destined for something "gothic" or the elite. Some state in which I have achieved all that can be achieved. Glory, prestige, peace of mind. Nirvana. Obviously I won't know if my intuition is worth a s--- until I'm dead.Therefore I do not believe in preaching. I do not know the answer so I cannot state my hypothesis as truth. My hypothesis isn't even educated. It's more like a stab.

Only a few times in his life did he let it slip out. Drinking beer on a cliff one day in Santa Barbara, just after the Arizona Cardinals picked him from the dregs of the 1998 draft, he stared off at the Pacific and told Alford, "People are going to know who I am."

"Relax, Pat, you're a seventh-rounder," said Alford.

Pat fixed him with a look, but said nothing. He wasn't talking football.

Something else he figured out early: Fear was what stood between a man and an extraordinary life, and the surest way through it was to stare it down over and over, until that gaze became habit. As a teenager, Pat was swinging one day from branch to branch, 20 feet up, through the trees outside his house, when neighbor Peggy Melbourne heard a thud. She ran outside and found him lying on the ground, groaning. He dusted himself off, then ratcheted up the risk, more than once turning to a pal in the passenger seat as he drove 75 mph on the freeway, asking him to hold the wheel, then shimmying out the window and draping himself over the roof, only to reappear a few minutes later through the opposite window.

Sure, he could bean idiot. He could tie one on at a buddy's wedding and then decide that the best way to celebrate was to scale the outside of his seven-story hotel. Marie Ugenti, his high school sweetheart and future wife, knew better than to waste her breath. The one time he let friends talk him out of taking a risk—a 60-foot cliff dive at Lake Tahoe with a menacing outcropping of rock—it ate him up so much that he returned two weeks later and did a swan dive, backward.

But the wildest one of all was the leap at Sedona, the wonderland an hour-and-a-half's drive from Phoenix where he'd test himself during college against the river and the crazed jumble of red rocks. There he discovered a cliff with a 40-foot drop to the boulders below. Nearly 20 feet away was the top of a tree, 10 feet below the cliff. Pat fell silent, calculating. He retreated 20 yards, all the space he had, and began to run. If he didn't reach that tree, death, paralysis or a bundle of broken bones waited below. Even if he did reach it, the tree appeared to be dead, most of its branches snapped off—would it hold his weight? At full speed he flung himself across the breach, struck the tree trunk so hard that it crushed the wind from his lungs as he wrapped his arms around it and hugged for dear life ... then gathered himself, too dazed and too wise for a whoop, but not for a smirky little smile.

Braveheart. That's who he wanted to be, said a friend who saw the glow in Pat's eyes as he watched the movie about the Scottish warrior. Trouble was, Pat's wisdom quest was too honest, had carried him clean past that plane where good and evil are fixed and far-flung from one another, to a higher ledge up in the swirling fog where a man could see how right and wrong might rotate and trade places. It just became harder and harder to be Braveheart.

Until 9/11, when for a moment there was moral clarity, a clarion call to arms, a chance to be that man. Sitting atop that bunker, 11 days into the invasion of a country that had hatched none of the 9/11 terrorists, it was dawning on Pat with each blast-wave lighting up the desert: That moment already was gone. Dawning on him that he'd flung himself into thin air on faith, in search of his highest self, toward a hollow tree that might not hold his weight.

That bloodbath the Black Sheep anticipated the next night, when they took part in Saving Private Lynch? It never happened. The "blaze of gunfire" that an early news report described as having occurred when Special Ops forces swooped in to rescue her from a Nasiriyah hospital and Pat's platoon provided perimeter security? It never happened either: Iraqi forces had fled the day before, and Iraqi doctors were waiting to hand her over. Private Lynch hadn't been stabbed or shot by the Iraqis, as intelligence reports and then news accounts had indicated, nor had she emptied her rifle "fighting to the death" before her capture; her rifle had jammed and she never fired a shot.

One thing really did happen, though: Pat, who'd been a business-marketing major at Arizona State, discovered firsthand how wars and soldiers get marketed by government and media alike, and how you can find yourself cast in the commercial whether you auditioned for it or not.

A little over a month later, in May 2003, the Black Sheep went home to Fort Lewis, shook the sand from their underwear and started letting off steam. Forty of the boys poured into their saloon, the Steilacoom Deli & Pub, six miles from the base, to throw a farewell party for a departing officer, only to discover that the bar had been taken over in their absence by another Army platoon. One of the interlopers unloaded a "F--- you!" on the Black Sheep's company commander, and before you knew it, chairs and bodies were flying, one of those barroom brawls that usually only happen in bad movies.

Russ tried to play peacemaker, but the meathead he was mediating with suddenly grabbed his throat. While Russ was deciding whether to have at him, a big screaming blur grabbed the meathead and tossed him aside like a pencil. That blur was Pat, but his goal, it became clear, was to prevent harm, not inflict it. Turning, he saw a clot of a half-dozen combatants lurching toward a soldier from the other platoon who had passed out on the floor, with a little help from a Black Sheep's choke hold. Pat blitzed that way, spread his arms and drove the whole crew, his guys and their guys, across the pub so they wouldn't trample that sorry customer on the floor.

Pat wasn't new to mayhem—once, at a pal's south-of-the-border bachelor party, he'd ended up in a Mexican clink. But he'd learned something crucial about life and about the swirling fog when he was 17, outside a Round Table Pizza not far from his home.

He'd always been protective of Jeff Hechtle, a high school buddy who'd undergone more than a dozen operations as a result of cancerous moles that covered two thirds of his head. So when someone ran into the pizza parlor and shouted, "Jeff's getting jumped!" Pat, who'd been drinking at a party earlier that night, bolted into the parking lot, where several guys were tangling with his friend. As a child Pat was so sensitive that his eyes filled with tears when he saw homeless people. Even as a teenager he would still pack Keek, the cat pillow his grandmother had sewn for him when he was a toddler, and Fluff, his baby blanket with a bunny on it, for overnights at friends' houses and even, in later years, for Arizona State football camps. That softness could undermine his extraordinary aims, and so he'd paved over it with a hardness to match. Both drove him out of that pizza shop to defend Jeff.

He caught the tail end of the melee and went after a man in his early 20s who, it turned out, wasn't the one who had initiated the fight. The man, and several of his teeth, ended up lying on the asphalt.

Everyone took off but Pat. Already, even in the wake of high school pranks that backfired, he lived by a creed of accountability, by a motto he'd soon hear from his Arizona State football coaches and make his own: Take it in the forehead. He gave his battered opponent his name and phone number. The Tillmans got a phone call later that night, the young man's father saying that his son was hospitalized and vomiting from a head injury. Suddenly Pat was staring at a felony assault charge, the threat of a lawsuit and a potential football scholarship going up in smoke, and in the crossfire between two parents whose marriage would dissolve two years later. His mother wanted to take the $40,000 that she'd just inherited from her grandmother and pay off the aggrieved family. His father, a lawyer, insisted that Pat had done the right thing and that offering money would be an admission of guilt. Pat reeled out of his house, sobbing, and climbed a eucalyptus tree.

Through his tears he looked down on a home where a boy could be a dreamer, an adventurer ... a child. A home with a small black-and-white TV that received just one fuzzy channel ... surrounded by a yard that hawks, deer, raccoons, wild boars and feral cats tumbled into from the hills of a 4,000-acre park, crawling with trails that he and his brothers roamed ... nestled across the street from a creek that fed a reservoir where ropes hung from thick branches that begged a boy to grab and swing and let go.

He came down, at last, from the eucalyptus, into a world where a knight rushing to the aid of a companion in distress could be a villain, where a man too hasty and too sure of doing the right thing could wreak a bloody, tangled mess. He pleaded guilty to felony assault, entered a juvenile detention center a few days after his high school graduation and was mistakenly placed in solitary confinement for the first week. He served 30 days, did 250 hours of community service, and his family paid $40,000 in damages.

He learned something large. He learned that he'd better begin really learning, that truth's more slippery and the consequences more dire than he'd ever dreamed when he sketched out that path for himself in his journal as a 16-year-old. But he wouldn't abandon it. "We've got to strive for more," he'd invariably conclude in those debates about the world's woes around the Tillmans' front-yard fire. "Just because it hasn't been done doesn't mean it can't be done."

Weeks passed after that wild night at the Steilacoom Deli & Pub. Pat and Kevin left Fort Lewis to enter Ranger School, the 61-day trial by hellfire that a man had to pass to become a tabbed Ranger. It culminated with a week and a half in the swamps of Florida that slashed 16 pounds off the average trainee, caused hallucinations, skin diseases and even hair loss due to malnutrition, stress and 20-hour days exposed to the elements, and made sure that nearly half of all candidates never stitched the sacred black and gold Rangers tab onto the left shoulder of their uniforms. The Tillmans stitched theirs, then Russ got his too, and Pat greeted him back at Fort Lewis with a brother's hug.

Next came months of drudgery, days on the base filled with mindless tasks and barracks gossip. Pat grew restless—the Rangers' intensity didn't match his. Bob Ferguson, the Seattle Seahawks general manager who had drafted Pat when Ferguson was with the Cardinals, called Pat's agent, Frank Bauer—the only NFL agent whose job was to say no to every commercial offer made to his client, on philosophical grounds—and told him that he wanted to make a Seahawk of the man who'd been Fergy's favorite player in 30 years as an NFL administrator.

"Can't," said Bauer, "he's got a year left in the Army." But then someone told him that Pat's circumstances were unique and that he might, having already served a tour in a war zone, be able to get an early discharge.

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 through him.

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 for you.

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.

Only afterward 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.

The locals 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.

Thirty-five 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.

Uthlaut relayed the offer back to base. The company commander seized on it, ordered him to split his platoon into two serials—one escorting the albatross GMV to a rendezvous point on the highway, the other proceeding to Manah—and to move out, now. Uthlaut, steamed, e-mailed back his disagreement and then radioed it, hoping that officers would overhear and amend the command. It meant splitting his firepower, relying on a local, traveling in daylight and arriving in Manah after sundown, too late to begin clearing operations. Why not move at night and arrive there at dawn, especially after sitting in one place for so long that half the countryside knew his platoon's whereabouts? Objection overruled.

Suddenly orders were being barked, vehicles were pulling out. Pat and Russ would join 14 other Rangers and four Afghan soldiers traveling in Serial 1 to Manah. Serial 2, including Kevin and the towed turkey, would leave a few minutes later and take another road through the mountains to the highway. Just before their exodus a one-legged man approached the platoon with a message: An Afghan doctor who lived on a nearby hill had something to tell them. The Black Sheep, who could tarry no more, blew him off and left in a cloud of dust.

Was the doctor trying to warn of an ambush? A more appetizing opportunity than this, no enemy could possibly conjure. No, wait, yes it could. The tow truck—a jinga, the locals called it—tried to but couldn't negotiate the steep, twisting dirt road through the mountains. Serial 2 would have to turn around and take the longer path to the highway, following Serial 1's route for a stretch through the narrowest of canyons. The jinga driver knew the way. He'd lead them.

Serial 1, in six vehicles up ahead, entered the canyon, its walls so sheer it felt like a cave and so tight in spots that vehicles had just inches of clearance. Russ's guts tightened. This was exactly the sort of terrain where, in Army training videos, he'd seen Afghans pick apart the Soviets during their war two decades ago. "This is Ambush Alley," he told a Ranger beside him. They made it through the gorge unscathed, passed a cluster of four houses, then missed their turnoff to Manah and pulled to the side of the road.

Serial 2 entered the canyon and got the same ominous feelings. "Reminds me of the opening of The Lone Ranger," one Black Sheep said, "where all the Texas Rangers got killed." Suddenly an explosion ripped through the canyon."IED!" someone shouted—but no, it wasn't an Improvised Explosive Device hidden along the road. More explosions shook the canyon, rocks cascading from the 650-foot-high walls: mortar or rocket-propelled grenades launched from the ridgelines.

The jinga driver froze, and the four Ranger vehicles behind him were pinned, the gorge too narrow to squeeze around him and escape. The squad leader in the GMV behind the jinga, Staff Sgt. Greg Baker, screamed and waved at the Afghan driver to Move! Move!—got no response and shattered the driver's window with a blow from his M-4 rifle.

Pat and his serial might never have heard or responded to that first explosion if they hadn't missed their turn and pulled over. But they did, at 6:34 p.m., and were now running back toward the canyon in fire teams of two to four men. Oh, f---, Russ thought. Here it was: his and Pat's first firefight.

Pat took off, then turned. There was confusion in the eyes of a young Ranger, 18-year-old Spc. Bryan O'Neal, whom he'd taken under his wing months earlier. "Follow me!" he called, and the kid came on the run. "Let's go kill the bad guys!" All the Afghans in Serial 1 stayed with the vehicles ... except one. He went with Pat.

Russ, for the first time, saw Pat move when it was life and death. Damn, he thought—hauling all that gear and that big SAW gun uphill, scaling five-foot stone walls, crossing the rock rubble of that lunar landscape, Pat was flat-out flying. He had mates in Ambush Alley. He had a brother in the kill zone.

Three to four football fields. That's how much ground he had to cover to get back there. He and his two men raced past the four houses. From one bolted a woman, screaming, and a flock of children.

Pat, who often played football with no pads other than those on his shoulders, shouted back to a trailing sergeant: Could he rip off his body armor so he could really run? Request denied.

Pat and his advancing platoon mates began taking fire from the northern ridgeline as they scrambled toward a hill near the kill zone. A radio operator behind them tried to call Serial 2 to inform them of Serial 1's new position. No response. He tried to call in aerial support. No response.