A Soldier's Story

It's been 48 hours since Danny was killed, and the world has moved on. Yesterday in Cheshire, this tiny town nestled in the Berkshires, Railroad Street was clogged with more vehicles than it probably sees in a month. A police captain had to play traffic cop. Newspaper reporters and television crews trampled all over the lawn of Louis and Barbara Petithory's green house with yellow trim, hoping for the perfect sound bite to anchor their stories about the local boy who just died in Afghanistan.

Today the lawn is empty. There's one car parked in front. The brick path leading to the porch is a lonely walk. Maybe no one's home. Maybe the family has flown to Kentucky to bring Danny's body home. But from behind the door come voices, shuffling feet, a surprising amount of commotion for a Friday morning in the sticks.

The door swings into a bright kitchen filled with the smell of coffee and fresh muffins. A neighbor, a friendly woman named Val Soldo, smiles uncomfortably before introducing Danny's 20-year-old sister, Nicole. A junior at Simmons College, she is tall and pretty, wearing jeans and a sky-blue sleeveless shirt. Her eyes are puffy and red, her hair long and dark. Walking past the kitchen table covered with brownies and cakes, she leads the way back to the living room and sits beside bouquets arranged around the wood stove. She folds her legs up under her and starts to cry. Nicole says she didn't know where her brother was on September 11 — it turns out he was training young soldiers in Central Asia — but when he called a few weeks later, around the time he shipped out to Afghanistan, he made a promise: “We're going to make them pay.”

Why do boys become soldiers? Just about all of them play war, whether it's with little green men or GI Joe action figures, or on a Sony PlayStation. Usually that lust for destruction fades. For some, it sticks. And sticks hard.

Lou Petithory thinks he knows why, but he needs to find something first. Dressed in khakis and a red plaid shirt, he kneels on the living room carpet and sifts through some things he and his wife pulled down from the attic this morning, the kinds of things kids forget about but parents save. There, among the pictures of Danny, the rolled-up rainbow of martial-arts belts, the maroon beret, and a few military papers, Lou finds what he's looking for.

It's a sketch — a doodle, really — done in pen on the back of a blank Army form. A square-jawed military police officer is dressed in full gear, fitted uniform, Kevlar helmet, Uzi. Next to this is written: “Bad Boys. Get it on. Suit up. Get Hot. We've got a mission.” It's almost adolescent.

Lou holds it up proudly, as his wife Barbara drifts back to the comfort of her friends. “He sent this to us a little while back,” Lou says, meaning when Danny was in his late twenties, serving at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. “He was still like a kid.”

Sergeant First Class Daniel Petithory, a 32-year-old Army Green Beret, never really outgrew the “Ninja Dan” his pals knew back in Cheshire. Even as his rangy 6-foot-4 frame filled out, inside he remained the kid who climbed trees higher and played hide-and-seek better than his friends, the one who imitated Bruce Lee and watched M*A*S*H reruns, organized games of paintball, and threw Chinese stars at his bedroom ceiling until his mother had conniptions. “He'd lounge around the house in his military boots,” recalls Nicole. “I never saw him wear sneakers.”

Danny played war his whole life. What changed was where and how he played it. Instead of horsing around on the tree-lined streets of Cheshire among the 3,500 mostly Christian residents, he was creeping through the dusty mountains of Afghanistan, a country with more than 20 million Muslims. The quaint homes with minivans became bunkers and caves with tank shells screaming overhead. He traded his Chinese stars for automatic weapons, his book bag for a rucksack filled with dried food, maps, and a satellite-linked laptop. And years after he chased his childhood friends, his foes were now merciless Taliban soldiers aiming mortars at him.

“He was so involved and enthusiastic,” says his brother, Michael. “We knew from the get-go he'd go into the military.”

A week after graduating from Hoosac Valley High School in 1987, Danny enlisted. “He was never very studious,” his father says. “He went to school out of necessity, not because he wanted to go.” After a stint with the military police, and sniper and tank warfare training, he wanted to test himself, to see it through to the extreme. It was like the games of hide-and-seek back in Cheshire, which would drag out for hours because no one could ever find Danny. Sometime in the early 1990s, an encounter took place that further motivated him. The story still makes his father smile.

“He bumped into these guys at the base,” says Lou. “They were monsters. Huge. When he told them he was going to be a Green Beret, they laughed at him.”

Those monsters knew what Danny didn't: that each year only 20 percent of the volunteers make it through Special Forces training and get their berets.

The last laugh, of course, was Danny's. Not only did he survive the grueling one- to two-year regimen, which includes marching with 50-pound sacks, rappelling, and learning foreign languages, but he also became a specialized communications sergeant. “Their rucksacks will weigh 100 to 150 pounds, usually the heaviest sack, because of all the equipment,” says Special Operations Major Richard Patterson. Communications sergeants keep troops wired to the outside world so when a bomb has to be dropped or a body has to be picked up, the word gets out quickly. They learn Morse code and become proficient in electronics, antenna construction, and setting up radio systems in remote locations.

“I was surprised,” Lou says of his son's determination to become a Green Beret. “I tend to be a bit timid.”

Is there any hat cooler than the beret? It just looks tough — slightly crooked, no frilly brim. Stitch a U.S. Army Special Operations Forces patch on it, and it's downright intimidating.

“My dad was very proud of Danny,” Michael says. “Green Berets are the thinking man's Terminator.”

Danny was assigned to the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, in 1992. He was deployed at various times to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Kenya, and Turkey, and saw several tours in Kuwait. When he showed up at his 10th high school reunion in 1997, he wore his uniform with a chest full of medals. He wanted his town to be proud.

“To me you're a success if you're in the Army,” says Lou, who served briefly in the National Guard in the mid 1960s. “I could see how he loved it.”

So could Michael. The brothers were close, but always on different paths. Michael was the jock. Danny hated sports. Michael went to college. Danny went to war. “Mike is the quiet, sensitive one,” Nicole says. “Danny is” — she catches herself — “Danny was the fireball.”

When the towers crumbled, the 5th Special Forces Group was in Central Asia. Danny, near tears, contacted his commander. He wanted to fight. And within weeks his team was in the Afghan town of Tirin Kowt. Around the time he shipped out, Danny called his sister, reaching her on her cell phone in her Simmons dorm room.

“Nikky,” he joked, “if I don't come home, you get the car.”

The remark pissed her off so much, she almost hung up. But she drifted into the hallway. She wanted to ask where he was going but knew better: Green Berets don't tell. “I can't imagine having that sense of courage,” she says now. “Knowing you're walking into your grave.”

“Our greatest fear was not death,” Danny's group commander, Captain Jason Amerine, would say later, “but the fear that we would not get a mission that would let us make a difference.” That mission came on November 16, when Danny and his comrades helped a ragtag team of freedom fighters fend off 500 counterattacking Taliban soldiers who had been forced from Tirin Kowt. Danny's group later learned the Taliban had planned to flatten the town and slaughter the families living there. “The pride we felt that day,” says Amerine, “will stay with us forever.”

When a 2,000-pound bomb doesn't land where it's supposed to, bad things happen. The system that directs these “smart” bombs is usually precise enough to strike within a 40-foot-wide target zone. Using a laser device and a satellite global positioning system, a soldier calculates the target's exact coordinates and radios them to a bomber overhead. Navigators in the plane type the details into a computer, which transmits them to the bomb. The bomb is then released.

Ideally, friendly ground troops will be at least one kilometer, or about 3,300 feet, away from the impact point. But on the morning of Wednesday, December 5, as Taliban and Northern Alliance troops exchanged fire just north of the Taliban's last stronghold, Kandahar, and the Special Forces called for air support, a link somewhere in the communications chain broke horribly. When one of those bombs landed, there was a team of U.S. and Northern Alliance soldiers just 300 feet away. Men were hurled like dolls, shrapnel flew, and when the ground stopped shaking, three Americans and five allied Afghans were dead.

Maybe someone called in the wrong coordinates or a navigator mistyped the information. Maybe the electronics failed or a heavy wind gust blew the bomb astray. Does it matter? “I do not want my men to be remembered as a detachment that was taken out by an errant bomb,” Captain Amerine says. “They must be remembered for what they accomplished.”

“I can believe it's remotely possible Danny may have made a mistake,” Lou Petithory says. “I don't really care. Whatever happened, happened. That he died [by friendly fire] or getting shot in an attack, it's just war.” He pauses. “What an incredible waste.”

He's right, of course. How a soldier dies is irrelevant. Why a boy becomes a soldier isn't what matters. “All that's important,” Danny's brother, Michael, told the media horde before it disappeared the next day, “is that he was doing what he loved to do.”

What matters to the people left in Cheshire now that the world has moved on is that in a way, when the bomb hit, Ninja Dan was still playing paintball and hide-and-seek.