When he saw the Taliban fighter pop up and prepare to fire a rocket-propelled grenade, Lt. Darryn Andrews could have saved himself by diving for cover.
Andrews certainly had the biggest possible reasons to live. He had a son who was not yet 2. His wife was pregnant with their second child. His parents had already lost a daughter to illness. And he had a twin brother who was sure to be devastated beyond measure by his death.
But 34-year-old Andrews was a soldier to the core and the very best kind of officer. He spent that final moment pushing the sergeant and the radio man on either side of him out of the way while leaving himself directly in the deadly projectile’s path. He used his last breath to call out a warning to the five other soldiers around him.
In the next instant, Andrews took a direct hit and the brunt of the explosion. His radio man, 20-year-old Pfc. Matthew Martinek, was still so badly wounded that he died after being medevaced. But the sergeant survived, as did the soldiers who took cover on hearing Andrews’s warning.
The citation that accompanied his posthumous Silver Star correctly reported the fallen officer’s heroism:
“Second Lieutenant Andrews fatally placed himself between the incoming enemy fire and his fellow comrades. His courage under fire was essential in saving another Soldier’s life, and saving the lives of five other Soldiers who were with him.”
By the official count, Andrews had saved a total of six fellow soldiers at the expense of his own life.
And that remarkable number makes it only more outrageous that the U.S. Army lied to Andrews’s family after his death.
The lie was about his unit’s mission in Afghanistan on that September day in 2009 when it ran into the deadly ambush.
In the aftermath, the Army told the family that Andrews’s unit had set out to capture a top Taliban commander.
Only this past Sunday did the family learn that the commander had already been grabbed earlier in the day and that the unit had been ordered to continue on another mission.
The added mission was the ongoing search for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had apparently slipped away from his post in July, leaving his body armor and weapon but taking a compass.
The Andrews family was told the truth by soldiers who had served with Andrews, including the sergeant he had saved by pushing him from harm’s way in his final living instant.
The soldiers further informed the family that they had been ordered not to reveal their true mission, lest it complicate the hunt for Bergdahl. They even had been forced to sign nondisclosure agreements.
With the news that Bergdahl had been freed, the soldiers felt they were themselves now free to tell the family the full story.
The official lie that the unit’s supposed mission had been to capture an enemy commander assumed a cruel irony with word that Bergdahl had been exchanged for five top Taliban commanders who had been grabbed earlier in the war.
But cruelest of all was the very fact that the military had misled the family when it could have quietly told them the facts with a caution to keep it to themselves.
“On one hand, you’re not all that surprised,” the fallen soldier’s father, Andy Andrews, said on Tuesday. “But still, when you have lost your son, you hate it.”
In an added twist, Darryn Andrews’s maternal grandfather was a POW during World War II after being captured during the Battle of the Bulge. His paternal grandfather and his father both served in the Air Force.
Darryn himself had wanted to go into the military since he was 14. He had originally enlisted in the Marines but had been shipped home after a physical injury. He had become a high school football coach, proving the lasting difference the right person can make in a teen’s life.
That was suddenly not enough after 9/11.
“He came home one day and said he joined,” the father recalled. “I said, ‘There you go.’”
Darryn served a tour in Afghanistan as an enlisted man. The Army was impressed enough to make him an officer before he headed back for a second tour.
“Somebody had to go defend the country, and he felt he was one to do it,” the father said.
Then came the September 4, 2009, ambush. Darryn had been traveling in a motorized patrol when the lead vehicle was hit by an IED. He and seven of his soldiers were seeking to extricate the vehicle from the resulting crater when he saw a Taliban fighter appear with an RPG launcher at the ready. The moment arrived when Darryn saved six fellow soldiers when he could have saved himself.
The funeral was held at the First Baptist Church in Darryn’s hometown of Cameron, Texas. The local police and fire departments provided an escort for his flag-covered coffin. The family insisted that military mourners be seated up front. The speakers included his twin, Jarrett, who had played high school football with him and was now a lawyer.
“When you get older, people get cynical, but he never did,” said Jarrett said of Darryn.
Darryn was buried in Fort Sam Houston cemetery in San Antonio a week after his son’s second birthday. He was subsequently awarded the Silver Star, and at the ceremony, one of his soldiers spoke to the father about this enlisted man turned officer.
“He never forgot where he came from,” the soldier said.
Just before that first Christmas without Darryn, his wife gave birth to their second child, a daughter. Darryn’s parents began a memorial Facebook page on which his mother marked the passage of important dates:
June 17, 2012
Happy Father’s Day, Darryn! You have the sweetest little girl and best son ever...I promise they will know all about you and most of all how much you loved them. Love you Darryn and missing you and all your hugs!
December 22, 2012
Today your baby girl turned three! You would be so proud of her - beautiful, smart, sweet, and soo funny. She is perfect just like you knew she would be...How I wish you were here to love her and help her grow.
July 3, 2013
38 years ago was the best surprise I ever had...2 babies! What a love, joy, adventure and richness you and your brother brought to our home. My dear son, I don’t know how my heart keeps beating, I miss you so… Happy Heavenly birthday!
Only on June 1, 2014, did the family learn that their son and his radio man had been killed while seeking Bergdahl. There were some estimates that as many as six Americans had lost their lives during the search. That number would have been doubled were it not for Darryl’s courage in saving six lives.
“We need to make sure who the heroes are and say who is a hero,” Andy Andrews said on Tuesday. “And Bergdahl is not a hero.”
The father had a question regarding the five Taliban leaders who had been freed in the exchange.
“How many soldiers were killed or hurt capturing them?” he asked.
The Andrews family had already lost a daughter to an autoimmune disease in 1999. The added tragedy of losing a son had been hard enough to bear without the wrenching revelations of recent days.
“This is kind of dragging it back up,” the father said. “But we’ll get through it.”
The hurt could only have been compounded by news that Bergdahl may have left a letter when he quit his post saying he could not support the war. There was also a report that the soldiers had overheard talk on the radio of an American looking for the Taliban. He was clearly not anything close to a POW in the sense of Darryn’s grandfather.
Those developments came to light as the father was at a Texas hospital, receiving treatment for cancer. The father does not let his family’s losses and the lies they were told and his own health struggles make him stony hearted.
“I’m glad his parents have him back,” he said of Bergdahl.
The father added, “But there is no honor in the way it happened.”
He then said, “I got a grandson and a granddaughter who do not have a daddy.”