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Excerpt: 'Boots on the Ground by Dusk'

'Boots on the Ground by Dusk'

"Dannie," Tony says, pulling me from my thoughts, "you all right?" I look up and see everyone looking at me.

"Yes, I'm fine. Can we get some coffee?"

After stopping at the nearest coffee shop, we return to the house and receive a call from Kevin that the meeting has been pushed back a few hours. Kevin comes home to wait with us. Tony leaves for the airport, and the rest of us drive to the Army base at Fort Lewis. We're all very quiet. I stare out the window, recalling the times I drove this route with Pat and Kevin. I glance at Kevin, then at Marie, wondering if they are having similar thoughts.

As we pass by a wooded area, I recall a story Pat and Kevin told me about the last time they drove this route before being deployed, when they saw two raccoons at the side of the road. One had been hit; the other hovered mournfully over his dead companion. Kevin told me the sad little buddy made eye contact with them as they passed. Pat and Kevin looked at each other; both were very unsettled by the experience.

When we arrive, Kevin escorts us into the headquarters of the 2nd Ranger Battalion, 75th Regiment. Lieutenant Colonel Bailey greets us and introduces us to Colonel James C. Nixon, the regimental commander. They lead us to a large room, where we're met by about twenty soldiers of various ranks. We're introduced to several of them and then seated at a large table at the corner of the room situated in front of a screen. The soldiers sit on chairs that have been set up several feet behind us. It's clear they will be listening to the presentation, but I wonder why.

Colonel Bailey stands in front of the screen, facing us, and Colonel Nixon sits at the head of the table. In front of each of us is a copy of the PowerPoint presentation we're to be shown. My ex-husband asks Bailey where the narrative report is. Bailey tells him it's not ready to be distributed. Patrick, who asked weeks ago if he could have the report in advance, is clearly angry that it is still not ready.

Bailey begins his presentation by admitting that he made some errors in his earlier briefings to us. He tells us that Sergeant Greg Baker actually did not get out of the vehicle. In fact, he said, the vehicle never stopped. He said the vehicle came out of the canyon, and Baker saw the Afghan soldier in a prone position, not standing, and, thinking he was the enemy, shot him in the chest eight times. The other soldiers, following the lead of their officer, fired up the ridgeline, killing Pat and wounding Lieutenant David Uthlaut and the radio operator Jade Lane.

This makes absolutely no sense. How could a man in a prone position get shot in the chest eight times? We are astounded by this information, but we let Bailey continue. He tells us that visibility was not as good as he had thought originally. Patrick reminds him that he told us he walked the site of Pat's death at the same time of day Pat was killed and had said light conditions were good. Bailey looks my ex-husband in the eye and tells him the soldiers who were present at the time told him visibility was poor.

We all look around uncomfortably at each other. Something isn't right about this. Bailey doesn't even seem to be the same person. His demeanor has changed completely from the last time we saw him. At my house, he appeared genuinely disturbed by Pat's death, and his briefing, although upsetting and full of unsettling details, seemed to be presented with sincerity. Now he seems haughty, superior, and disingenuous.

He puts an image on the screen of the site where Pat died, which very much upsets Marie. She says under her breath she hates that Pat has been reduced to a PowerPoint presentation. Her face and lips are white, and I worry about her sitting through the whole briefing.

Bailey points out illustrations of vehicles placed where he believes they were positioned during the shooting. The vehicles look like Tonka trucks and are not at all to scale.

"Why do you have drawings of vehicles?" I ask. "Why didn't you position real vehicles there so things could be seen to scale?"

"Ma'am, we didn't have the vehicles. It was too dangerous to use real vehicles."

"How did you get there?" I ask. "Didn't you have a vehicle?"

"I was flown in," he says, and quickly changes the subject.

We are confused about the changes in the story. We don't understand how, two weeks ago, Bailey was so sure that Baker was out of the vehicle, shooting a standing Afghan, and now he's telling us that the shooters drove by without stopping and Bailey shot a prone AMF in the chest. Kevin looks dumbfounded and helpless. These are his superior officers, and he is suspicious that they are lying about his brother's death. My brother asks Bailey how much time had elapsed from the time the AMF was shot to when Pat was killed. Nixon tells Mike they were shot simultaneously. He talks about how chaotic and confusing it was and compares the situation to the opening scene in Saving Private Ryan. I look at him in disbelief.

"What about the lull in fire?" Mike says. "Lieutenant Colonel Bailey told us there was a lull. Pat wouldn't come out from behind the rock while they were shooting."

Bailey stares at my brother and says he was mistaken; there was not a lull in fire.

"But you said there was a lull in fire because the soldiers were reloading," I remind him.

"I was mistaken, ma'am," he says, looking at me as if to dare me to dispute his words.

"I still don't understand why they didn't see the purple smoke," Patrick says.

"We thought the smoke was purple, but it was actually white. The soldiers thought the smoke was dust stirred up from bullets hitting the dirt."

Again, we look at each other in disbelief.

"By the way," Bailey says, "I suggested earlier that Pat may have released a flare, but we think it was actually Sergeant Weeks who did that."

Reprinted from Boots On the Ground by Dusk © 2008 by Mary Tillman with Narda Zacchino. Permission granted by Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098. Available wherever books are sold or directly from the publisher by calling (800) 848-4735.

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Mary Tillman