Editors' note: Questions have been raised about the accuracy of this account. See related story "Stolen Valor?" for more details.
Timothy Oliver, a Georgia boy by birth, spent years with the Special Forces in Afghanistan hunting bad guys in hideouts in the night.
Sometimes he found them.
Now, he spends his nights sleepless in a dimly lit mobile home park in Hermosa. Gaunt, with dark circles under his eyes and a limp, he smokes Marlboro reds and handles a toy gun that is a replica of the 9 mm he used to carry in Afghanistan.
He says he sees the faces of the men he hunted, the villagers he found massacred and mutilated by jihadists and the friends he lost. He takes large quantities of Valium but does not sleep.
Still, he says he would not take back the five years, three months and 34 days he spent in the military.
It started in 1998, when he enlisted and started studying at the Georgia Military Institute, training when he wasn't in school.
He finished a four-year degree in three years before the United States struck Afghanistan in October 2001.
A member of the unit commonly known as Delta Force, he said he hit the ground in Kandahar after a high-altitude jump with thousands of other specialized troops from different branches of service.
He recalls three days of intense “house-to-house urban warfare.”
“It was a lot of chaos and a lot of fear,” he said.
When the fighting ended and Marines arrived, he felt hopeful that a quick end to the war was possible. But he said commanders opted to fortify their position rather than advance, missing what he feels was a key opportunity to hobble the enemy early.
When Oliver was seriously injured Dec. 4, 2004, he was on his third tour in Afghanistan. He had suffered two minor injuries earlier: one from a ricochet that hit his leg and another from a bayonet that sliced his lip. The man with the bayonet he encountered early in his first tour. Believing the enemy compound they infiltrated was empty, he let his guard down. But the man appeared suddenly from behind a door and jabbed him in the face.
“He didn't come out on top of that one,” he said.
That first brush with death taught him to be more cautious.
“I never failed to clear a room again,” he said.
But when the injury that would end his military career came, there was little he could do to avoid it.
While traveling over land through a tight valley, the unmanned aerial vehicle used to see what was ahead of them spotted an ambush lying in wait. Oliver, the leader of his four-man team, said their training in such a situation was to exit vehicles and take cover along a valley wall. He was about 10 feet from their Humvee when it was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade.
A fellow team member, who instead of leaving the Humvee had gone for its mounted machine gun, was killed instantly.
The explosion threw Oliver against the canyon wall, sprayed him with shrapnel and broke his leg in three places.
Another team member was killed in a second explosion.
“We were being attacked from the front and the rear,” he said.
He saw another team member, who was trying to reload his weapon with one hand because the other one had been blown off, be overrun.
At that point, he said he did what he had been trained never to do because of the possibility of hitting an unintended target: switched his machine gun to “full auto” and sprayed.
“They were so close, I did it,” he said.
Soon, air support responded to their distress call and he was airlifted to the USS Abraham Lincoln for emergency medical treatment.
The awful reality of his situation soon became apparent.
“I didn't get any of my men out, but I got out,” he said.
This knowledge was to become more crippling than his injuries. Of the three teams – 12 men in all – that were ambushed, he said, four were killed and six were seriously wounded.
Furthermore, the female pilot assigned to provide air support for his team – a woman he was close to but was back at base at the time of the attack – died soon after.
After being medically discharged, he eventually moved to Southwest Colorado to be with a woman, Phebe Durand, whom he met in an Internet chat room. They're now married.
He's tried working. In 2009, he said he was the night-shift manager at Wendy's, but a violent confrontation with two employees triggered hallucinations that resulted in his being admitted for acute psychiatric care at the Crossroads Center near Mercy Regional Medical Center.
Now, Oliver mostly stays home, sometimes listening to his unit's theme song, “A Demon's Fate” by the Dutch metal band Within Temptation, on YouTube.
Sometimes he reads “The Picture,” a poem he wrote:
Another long day, in this dry and desolate land
Sun's coming up so I take into my hand
a worn and battered photograph that I want to see
to remind myself again what I'm fighting to make free
The poem goes on to describe that the picture is of his loved ones, The people I care about the most; and if I die today to protect them then I'll happily join the ghosts.
At night, it's as if he already has.