His mom, Marti, a painter who describes her political views as “pretty much as close to socialist pacifist as it gets,” remembers being terrified. But she knew that when her son’s mind was made up, his resolve was unshakable.

Kirkpatrick went to Park View High School in Sterling, Virginia, just across from the field where he’d once played Little League. By the ninth grade, he no longer related to the jocks. He sang bass in the jazz choir and took to the stage. He auditioned for New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, but his grades fell short, so he remained in Virginia. He worked odd jobs and stayed up late smoking and writing poetry in a battered old composition notebook held together with duct tape.

Kirkpatrick started reading his work at D.C. cafés. The in-your-face one-upmanship of slam poetry seemed tailor-made for Kirkpatrick, who got the crowd worked up with the crescendos in his poems. In 2000 he won first place in the D.C. slam competition, and went on the road with hopes of winning at the nationals. He also started seeing the woman who’d eventually become his wife, Christy Blasingame, a girl with dyed black hair and a silver stud beneath her lower lip, after a mutual friend introduced them at a club. But Kirkpatrick didn’t fulfill his dream of triumph at the nationals, and a year later he started to withdraw.

He enrolled at Northern Virginia Community College and dabbled in creative writing and political science. He’d always been interested in politics, and after 9/11 he started thinking about it more—consumed with how terrorism threatened freedom of expression and how a climate of fear threatened American liberty. But by 2003, Kirkpatrick was drifting—and drifting didn’t suit him.

One night he and Blasingame were talking at a diner in Herndon, Virginia, around 2 a.m. “He said, ‘I feel like a fraud,’” she recalls. “‘Here I am writing and analyzing and bitching about things, and I’m not doing anything.’” He told her he was considering joining the Army but didn’t know whether he should finish school first. “I said, ‘I’m not going to tell you what to do. Pick what you want to do and go for it, balls to the wall,’” she remembers. He enlisted.

His plan was to become an airborne ranger, move up to the Special Forces, and, from there, enter the CIA. In the months before basic training, Kirkpatrick ran almost every day and started lifting weights. Before long, he was a lean 185 pounds. “He pretty much turned from this laid-back, limp-armed poetry guy into this straight, hard-core, cut dude,” says his friend Bevan Johnson.

Kirkpatrick breezed through basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, and graduated in July 2004. But another vicissitude—one with a twist that seems all but scripted—would trip him up: He came up two sit-ups short of his dream to enter ranger school, so the Army put him in the 3rd Infantry Division—one of the first to roll through Baghdad in the 2003 invasion—and transferred him to Fort Stewart, outside Savannah. On a 10-day furlough, he proposed to Blasingame over dinner. They got married at the local DMV, in matching white button-down shirts and blue jeans. Then they found themselves an apartment in Savannah and soaked up three months of newlywed bliss before Scott disappeared on a bus full of young men in crisp desert fatigues.