In the open desert outside Baiji, Iraq, a naked man with a thick black beard crouched in the dust of a railroad culvert at twilight. Hours before, he had been mumbling and praying in Arabic. Now he spoke few words. Army 1st Lt. Michael Behenna stood over him in the grainy darkness, his Glock pistol racked and pointed down at him.
"If you don't talk, I will kill you," Behenna said.
The night was warm and ragged from the dust storm that had turned the afternoon an eerie ocher. Only one light could be seen, far off, along the road.
Behenna's squad leader had walked off to relieve himself in the bushes. An Iraqi interpreter listened just outside the culvert. "You'd better talk," he told the captive in Arabic. "I mean, why do you put yourself in this situation? He is going to kill you."
"I don't know anything," the man kept saying. "I am innocent."
Behenna was a 24-year-old first lieutenant from Oklahoma, the soft-spoken son of a retired state police investigator and a federal prosecutor who helped convict Timothy McVeigh. He liked to read history and philosophy, learned Arabic in his spare time and seemed to relish the Iraqi culture.
No one who knew him could have imagined that he would be here, at this moment, or how it would upend his life and shatter his family's tidy world.
The voices went back and forth. There was a muzzle flash, with the sharp crack of the Glock, and then another.
The squad sergeant ran back with his rifle raised and saw the naked body pumping blood onto the broken concrete.
They picked up the man's clothes. The sergeant took an incendiary grenade from his flak vest, placed it near the man's head and pulled the pin. The three started trudging back, through sand and sharp rocks, to the four armored trucks where the rest of the platoon waited.
Behenna said nothing. He had been brooding alone for weeks.
What had delivered him to this point? Vengeance? Delirium? Survival? Protecting his soldiers?
Was it all of that?
Behenna's path to Iraq had the familiar thrust of a young man seeking purpose. He was the oldest of three brothers in a family that lived in a two-story brick home on a cul-de-sac in Edmond, a suburb of Oklahoma City. His father, Scott, was a tall, broad-shouldered special agent with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. His mother, Vicki, was an assistant U.S. attorney who specialized in white-collar crime.
It was a warm, Lutheran household. The family ate dinner together every night. Vicki encouraged the boys to explore, read, meet all types of people.
Michael was an inward boy. He didn't charge into situations; he studied them first. But he was open and lighthearted with people he knew, and collected a wide and eclectic group of friends.
He learned Spanish so he could speak to the Mexican parents of a onetime girlfriend. He traced his roots back seven generations to Cornwall, England, and became fascinated with Native American culture.
A dark episode marred his adolescence though, and would affect him for years. When he was 13, his mother spent long spells in Denver working on the Oklahoma City bombing case, and the boys' grandparents watched them after school. One day, Michael told his dad the unthinkable: He was being molested by Vicki's dad.
Scott confronted his father-in-law and banished him from the house forever. Vicki was devastated.
They didn't press charges. Michael didn't want anyone to know what happened.
They got him into counseling, but he became even more withdrawn, and seemed uncomfortable in his own skin. He kept the abuse bottled up, refusing to talk about it. He occasionally became defiant with people in authority -- teachers, coaches. He resented his mother for keeping in touch with her parents.
Yet he eventually seemed to get past the trauma. He did well in school, dated, played football and basketball. He was a natural athlete, square-jawed and lean. When he went on to the University of Central Oklahoma and joined the ROTC Army officer program, his parents started to see the "old Michael" resurface and a new resolve emerge.
The images of people leaping from the World Trade Center on 9/11 haunted him. He wanted to fight terrorists, and he wanted to go to Iraq no matter how ugly the situation looked. His parents had to talk him out of enlisting immediately as a private.
"He wanted to start at the bottom and work his way up," says his girlfriend, Shannon Wahl, a friend since the second grade. "He wanted to earn his respect. He didn't want to just get it for nothing."
Vicki shuddered at the thought of him over there. She agonized over failing to protect him as a child, and couldn't bear to see him harmed again. But she encouraged him. He seemed confident for the first time in years.
He stayed in school and graduated in 2006. He enrolled in officer basic training, then infantry officer training and Ranger School. Vicki fought back tears every time he graduated to the next level. She prayed that the war would end before he had to go fight.