The photo of the kidnapped woman wouldn’t leave me alone. I lay on my lumpy single bed after 48 hours of juggling multiple missions and all I wanted was to sleep. My pillow was flat and hard like a big slice of Melba toast. I kept trying to toss some shape into it and close my eyes. But she was still there.
I flipped on my light and sat up. The air-conditioning was on the fritz again, making rumbling sounds. I grabbed the photo off my side table and looked at it. The edges bent over, little wrinkles in the face.
The woman was in her late twenties, with long black hair and light skin. She had these piercing blue eyes and looked Lebanese. A few nights before, a colleague had walked into the Box with her photo and handed it to me. “An Iraqi general came to us about her,” he said. She was the wife of a prominent Iraqi doctor. An ISIS cell had grabbed her on the street a few weeks before and a man had begun to call the doctor’s phone daily, demanding ransom payment for her return.
They said they were raping her and would continue to do it until he paid them millions of Iraqi dinar. But the doctor didn’t have that kind of money. He pleaded for the Iraqi general’s help in getting his wife back, and the general came straight to us.
Sadly, this wasn’t an unusual situation in Iraq. ISIS had employed kidnapping cells for years to target Iraqi government officials, women, and children—anyone with elevated status and money. They used the money to finance their activities. And most of the time it didn’t even matter if the ransom was paid. They killed their captives anyway.
“He could really use our help if you have the time,” the colleague said.
He handed me the phone number of the guy who’d been calling the doctor with the threats. It was the only clue they had to go on. This was yet another instance of a terrorist group that claimed to fight for their fellow Muslims but instead did harm to them—an everyday occurrence, it was clear from where I sat.
It was mid-deployment, sometime in the summer. We had dozens of other targets that still needed to be taken out. Guys who had killed a lot more people and were plotting against Americans back home even. I remembered thinking, Why should I help this man I don’t even know, especially when we have bigger fish to find?
“I wish we could,” I said.
People were always asking us for our help. We had started making a name for ourselves as a force who could find ghosts, guys no one else could find, and pinpoint their location in a short amount of time. So it wasn’t uncommon for other military units to ask us to track down targets they had lost.
But we had our own priorities. We knew the network better than anyone—we were living and breathing it every day. And even though we officially answered to headquarters, they rarely forced missions on us because they knew the importance of staying out of our way.
“Can’t you just throw up a drone?” an FBI agent asked us one day over a video meeting about the search for some target he wanted tracked down. The suit was being beamed in from a comfortable conference room in Virginia.
The question was ridiculous. Why don’t you try putting a fucking drone up and see where it gets you?
“Drones don’t work alone,” I said diplomatically.
The suits never got it. They thought a drone was like a remote-control airplane—just hit a few buttons and it would go to work finding whomever we needed to find. What we did was very complicated and technical. We just made drones look easy to people on the outside.
We just couldn’t help everyone. There were not enough of our teams to go around.
But something in me changed that morning as I stared at the Iraqi doctor’s wife’s photo again. I couldn’t put it down. The organs inside my chest were all tightening as if something was telling me this time was different, a feeling that I hadn’t experienced in years of chasing these assholes. It hurt my head. For the first time I began to sense that I had been slowly losing what made me essentially human: the ability to care about people, about the lives around me.
Long ago, I had come to terms with the fact that we were doing bad things to very bad people, because that’s the reality of what it takes to deal with fanatics who care only about killing.
The thing was, in this world, emotions couldn’t apply. Emotions clouded judgment when it came to the decisions we had to make. On our drone feeds, I had to stare at families as they went about their lives, women and children, who had no idea their worlds were about to be upended forever.
I had to look at the bigger picture of our strategy, which was larger than any one person. It was about trying to save hundreds, even thousands, of lives—not one or two here and there. Because this woman didn’t have anything to do with our higher-level goal, she didn’t fit into my calculus.
Death happened every day. And sometimes I had to do things to remind myself that these were real human lives.
I felt light-headed as these emotions swirled inside me. I remember suddenly thinking, What if this was a member of my family? What if this was my mother or somebody close to me?
My inner voice wrestled with itself: If you saved this woman, it would be one of the few times that we could see the tangible results of our actions. Isn’t saving this one life the real reason you’re here anyway? It wouldn’t even take very long, and yet it would mean the world to her family.
That’s when I got up. I threw on clothes and headed for the Box.
The rest of the team was already at work. We’d been following another high-level target for the last few days, but not much had changed. We had built a solid pattern of life on the guy—he was going back and forth between work and home. Nothing unusual. I was certain we’d know where to find him again in a day or two if we redirected our drones.
“We have a new mission,” I said to Kate. I held up the photo. “We are going to find this woman.”
We spent a couple of hours digging into the phone number of the guy who had been calling the doctor’s mobile. It helped that our technology was probably the best in the world. We used a special tool to ping the mobile to give us a general location of where its signal was coming from. Soon we had our start point.
I don’t know if we were lucky that we were dealing with relative amateurs or we were just that good, but in a matter of hours we were orbiting a house in a neighborhood slum in the southern part of the city, where I was sure the woman was being kept.
The neighborhood block was a jam of worn-down concrete houses in various stages of falling apart. Some were barely standing, tilting left and right into one another, and others had no roofs at all.
It was daytime, clear and sunny, the streets full of activity, with people walking around, kids playing, and guys doing nothing much at all but smoking. Everything was covered in dust from the dirt streets.
The target house was tiny, probably just a few rooms inside. The yard out front doubled as a parking lot, with a couple of cars and a van pulled up right to the door—a sign that someone was home.
We waited out the day and watched from above. A couple of men came and went. One was a smoker. But there was no sign of the woman.
Jason and I talked it over in the Box and came to the conclusion that if there was even a slight chance she was there, we needed to go before it was too late, since her captives might move her.
We decided to strike that night. Jason and his assault force came into the Box and talked out the hostage rescue. It wasn’t a typical planning session. If the woman was inside, they needed to be extra careful. When they crashed a house, everything moved lightning fast. They only had a split second to decide if the person in their crosshairs was a friend or foe. It was easy for things to go wrong. If they didn’t carry out the raid just right, the doctor’s wife would die.
An hour later, we were spinning up and the operators were breaking down the door. They found three men from the kidnapping cell and dragged them out to the street. The woman was locked in the back bedroom. “Got her,” the radio erupted.
The barbarians had handcuffed her to an air-conditioning unit and it was clear that the men had been assaulting her. Her face was bruised and her clothes were ripped up.
The men deserved to die.
Throughout that deployment, I kept the woman’s photo with me in my notebook as a reminder: in a world of all this evil, we had the power to make a difference. Saving someone good was just as important as killing and capturing our enemy.
That woman won’t ever know who I am, but it felt good knowing she was safe. Despite what people said about our team and the drones we operated, despite all the bad stuff people said, we were the good guys.
From the book Drone Warrior: An Elite Soldier's Inside Account of the Hunt for America's Most Dangerous Enemies by Brett Velicovich and Christopher S. Stewart. Copyright © 2017 by Brett Velicovich and Christopher S. Stewart. Published by arrangement with Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Brett Velicovich has over ten years of experience conducting counterterrorism and intelligence operations globally. As an intelligence analyst within the U.S. military’s elite 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment—Delta, his work was directly responsible for countless missions leading to the successful capture and kill of terrorist leaders. Serving five combat tours to Iraq and Afghanistan, he also worked in Somalia and received numerous combat medals for his service, including the Bronze Star and Combat Action Badge. Regarded as a world-renowned drone expert, he left the service and earned an MBA from Duke University and helped start an initiative that looks to employ unmanned aerial vehicles in support of wildlife conservation in East Africa. He lives in Virginia. brettvelicovich.com @brettvelicovich
Christopher S. Stewart is an investigative reporter at The Wall Street Journal, where he shared a 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. His work has appeared in GQ, Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, New York magazine, The Paris Review, Wired, and other publications, and he also served as deputy editor at the New York Observer and is a former contributing editor at Condé Nast Portfolio. Stewart is the author of Hunting the Tiger and Jungleland. He lives with his family in New York. christophersstewart.com @csstewart