Forward Operating Base Falcon is a miserable, hot, dusty outpost on Uday Hussein’s former estate in Arab Jabour, which lies along the banks of the Tigris River southeast of Baghdad. Sometimes, when Sergeant Scott Lange Kirkpatrick, 26, spent his nights here in a tent by the old stables with 49 other soldiers, the heat was so bad that he’d pull his cot outside and sleep under the stars. There was limited access to phones, no air conditioning, and none of the Green Zone amenities that could distract U.S. soldiers from feeling that things in 2007 were about as bad as they could get in Iraq. In the morning, he’d strap on 75 pounds of gear and lead his company of newly deployed “cherry“ privates on white-knuckle raids and patrols through an area that was considered one of the most dangerous in the country.
Sometime in early summer, sick and on the verge of dehydration from a day under the searing sun, Kirkpatrick was leading a patrol in a far-off sector when, stopping to check a map, he heard a car approaching. It was after curfew, and no one should have been on the road. Then he heard the engine being gunned, and the car tore around the corner and headed straight for Kirkpatrick’s patrol. In such a situation, soldiers are required to fire a warning shot first, then shoot into the radiator. If that proves ineffective, they are then permitted to target the person behind the wheel. Kirkpatrick followed procedure. The car kept coming. So Kirkpatrick squeezed the trigger of his black M16 rifle one last time, and fired a round into the driver. The car skidded out of control and slammed into a wall—its occupant slumped over the wheel, dead. Scott Kirkpatrick had just killed a man.
Then he fainted.
It was five minutes to midnight on October 15, 2003, when Kirkpatrick sent an e-mail to his family and friends that would leave them dumbfounded. They knew him as the skinny shit-talker, the liberal idealist—the poet who stayed up all night listening to the Melvins, reading Philip K. Dick, and scrawling verses he’d belt out at poetry competitions. He was six feet tall and 165 jagged pounds of caffeine, Camel Lights, and sarcasm. A 22-year-old with a mop of dyed blond hair and an unkempt beard tends to stand out in the muted suburb of Reston, Virginia—a half-hour west of the nation’s capital.
So it was a shock to Kirkpatrick’s friends and family when they opened their in-boxes to find a carefully composed message detailing his plans to join the military.
“After nearly a year of thought and much deliberation I have decided to enlist in the US Army,“ it read. “No one should think I have gone off the deep end and become some sort of right-wing radical hell bent on making war with everyone on the planet. I am still as independently liberal as I have always been, but these are questions of security and foreign policy, and I simply think the world has changed and it is time to adapt.“
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.
The goddamn haji cigarettes could turn a man green. But by the time they got to Sadr City at the end of January 2005, Kirkpatrick and his buddies from basic were so desperate for a smoke they would have lit up anything that burned. “KP“ (after Kirkpatrick) quickly earned a reputation as one of the best Bradley drivers in the battalion. Nine guys shared the infernal interior of one of those big metal vehicles. It smelled like sweat, sand, and diesel exhaust—and the bone-rattling vibrations lingered long after you crawled out through the hatch.
Kirkpatrick wrote home about the knee-deep rivers of raw sewage running through the slums of Sadr City, a 40-by-40-block grid northeast of Baghdad where 3.5 million people live in buildings no higher than three stories. Many nights he’d lead convoys through the dusty, halogen-lit labyrinths with the lights off and his night vision on, cracking jokes and memorizing the maps. On day patrols the Iraqi kids would laugh and wave and ask him for candy, and then when he drove away they’d chuck bricks and rocks at him. During off-hours, his room was a gathering place for playing cards, listening to tunes, and shooting the shit.
“As far as soldiers go, he was the most patriotic kind,“ says his friend Specialist John Wayne Reynolds Jr. “I don’t know that he was ever for the war the way we all were in the beginning. For him it was about serving your country. He was fighting for ideals that made the country what it is.“ Kirkpatrick kept writing. His poetry took on a darker hue, and his homesickness made its way into his verse, but by the time his tour was up, just after Christmas that year, Kirkpatrick had been promoted to specialist.
When he returned home after his tour, Kirkpatrick’s parents drove down to Savannah with Christy to meet him at the base. They took him to Outback Steakhouse—the only place around that had Guinness on tap. Ed still remembers the way Scott kept smelling the air—taking in big, loud lungfuls through his nose. “Sadr City smelled like shit and death,“ Ed says. Savannah smelled like grass and magnolias. But Scott was on borrowed time—as an infantryman, for whom multiple deployments are a given—and when President Bush announced the troop surge in January 2007, he figured his time was about up. On May 11, his family gathered in the Fort Stewart parking lot to say good-bye. He showed his dad the mechanics of his M16. He told him how he could hit anything at 600 yards. He held Christy for a very long time. Then he boarded a white bus with dark tinted windows.
On July 6, Kirkpatrick’s friend Private First Class Bruce C. Salazar Jr., 24, of Tracy, California, died in Muhammad Sath of wounds inflicted by an improvised explosive device. But the real turning point for Kirkpatrick came a couple of weeks later, when a mortar shell exploded next to his buddy Sergeant Danny Keeton. Kirkpatrick, who’d received medical training, had to treat Keeton’s wounds in the field, listening to his friend scream.
Ed’s last communication with his son was over Instant Messenger, at the tail end of Scott’s four-day leave in the Green Zone. Scott was next to the pool—telling his dad that once his tour was up the next year, he had no intention of reenlisting. “He realized that as much as he wanted to be part of the Special Forces, he was sick of war, sick of hatred,“ Ed says. “He wanted to come home, go back to school, and be with his wife.“
Sometime on Saturday morning, August 11, 2007, Kirkpatrick and his squad were out on patrol in an abandoned building on the outskirts of their sector in Arab Jabour. Private First Class William L. Edwards, a 23-year-old from Houston, Texas, stayed behind in the Bradley that had transported them there. At some point, Edwards opened the hatch and was hit by a sniper’s bullet. As the sniper darted into a nearby house, Scott and three other ranking soldiers pursued him into the building. Inside, one of the soldiers stepped onto a pressure plate rigged to 30 pounds of explosives stashed under a stairwell. In an instant, all four young men were dead. Edwards died later in an Army hospital.
On a warm September night, three weeks after the Color Guard at Arlington National Cemetery handed them the folded American flag, Ed and Marti are out on their candlelit patio having their son’s favorite meal: oven-baked chicken with rice and steamed asparagus, and homemade apple pie. They are trading stories—about Scott’s perfect stage whisper, his first and only fight with his brother Kevin, and the day Scott, age 7, decided to hang out with a homeless man in Waterford, Virginia. Ed can tell the weather by the flight path the planes take on their way into Dulles, a 35-minute drive south. It’s clear tonight. He watches as they materialize as pinpoints in the west, veer left in a glittering descent, and disappear.