After September 11, 2001, my wife and I started a time capsule of sorts that we planned to open sometime years down the road, when our then theoretical kids would be at an age to be interested in their country’s history.
I myself used to be enamored by the box my mom kept that contained tattered old ration books from her youth during World War II. She would explain why they rationed things like sugar and flour and described the blackouts in Los Angeles while showing me the safety pins her mother had used to hang blankets over the windows. There were packages from seeds she’d used to plant a victory garden, and copies of Time magazine and newspaper clippings that her mother had saved spanning Pearl Harbor to D-Day, victory in Europe, and the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima.
That box of memories provided me with a tangible connection to World War II—my parent’s generation—and instilled in me a respect for our armed services. As a teen, I delved into books that documented many of the battles and all the wars in our recent history, including Korea and especially Vietnam.
So shortly after 9/11, when our generation was poised for war in 2001, my wife (our wedding had been on September 14, just three days after the attacks) and I collected newspapers, printed out emails we’d exchanged with friends, saved magazines, and put aside a few mementos from our wedding. We continued to add articles after our military confirmed that American soldiers were on the ground in Afghanistan in late October 2001. A few years later, the time capsule was relegated to a dusty shelf in the garage.
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Fast-forward to 2006. My first book was going to print, and I was trying to figure out what my next book would be. I had told my agent that I really wanted to write something about the war—I felt that it was a way I could give something back to document history for future generations. By chance, she learned that a friend of hers worked with the sister of the captain of a Special Forces team that had been the military adviser for Hamid Karzai way back in 2001, when he was just an obscure statesman, not the president of the country.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “I remember that story.” And I dug out the cardboard box/time capsule from the garage and skimmed the clippings from five years before.
With a little research, I learned that the story had never been told and that the captain was currently an instructor at West Point. After several phone calls to Army Public Affairs, I was able to talk to him and sit in on a couple of his classes. I told him that I was considering a story on the war in Afghanistan and that I would like to interview him about his mission there, a mission where every member of his eleven-man Special Forces A-Team had either been wounded or killed.
He said that I should meet with the families of the men on his team who did not survive, and if they gave their blessing to the project, he’d tell me the story—the whole story. As an officer, he would not ask his men to talk with me, but suggested I reach out to all of them.
“You should hear it from as many perspectives as you can get,” he said. I asked if he would provide me with the names of his men or the names of their families. At least their hometowns. He politely declined.
“You’re a journalist,” he said. “You found me. Figure it out.”
I ultimately located the parents of Jefferson Donald Davis in Tennessee and Daniel H. Petithory in Massachusetts. They invited me to their homes. I spent a weekend sleeping in the bedroom where Dan had grown up, surrounded by the sad but proud memorabilia that honored his death in the line of duty, including the Silver Star and Purple Heart that had been presented posthumously. We sat at the kitchen table for hours. There was laughter when they recounted the good times, followed by silence. There were tears throughout days that began with coffee, shifted to beer, and ended with good whiskey.
They escorted me to their son’s grave; I walked on the trails where he played as a child, met his siblings, and recorded hours of interviews that took me from the soldier’s birth to the moments each member of the family was informed of his death.
At the end of the weekend, I was waiting on a platform for my departing train when the father shook my hand and said, “You’re going to do a good job. I have no doubt. You tell it like it happened. Don’t glamorize it; don’t candy-coat it. Tell it like his team tells you. The good and the bad. Things go wrong in war. Dan believed in accountability. That’s how you can honor our son. That’s how you can honor their mission. Tell it like it happened.” I looked at the mother, whose eyes were getting glossy.
“Eric,” she said, “I was terrified to meet you. Now I’m terrified to see you go.”
That was the moment that book became a calling, and that father’s words—Lou Petithory’s words—have been my guiding force ever since. “Just tell it like it happened.”