The raid took place after dark in a remote corner of northwestern Afghanistan. The target: a drug and weapons bazaar, where the proceeds from selling opium help fund the Taliban insurgency.
Two military helicopters carrying several dozen American soldiers and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents swooped down near the village of Darrey-ye Bum. Among those on board was special agent Michael Weston, a 37-year-old Harvard Law School graduate who'd already been deployed to Iraq as a Marine three times.
Gunfire erupted. After an hour-long firefight, the Americans boarded their helicopters at 3:30 a.m. to depart, according to the DEA and the International Security Assistance Force. But the takeoff stirred up thick dust, and the pilots of one helicopter couldn't see. They tried to correct but instead hit a structure and crashed. Seven soldiers and three DEA agents, including Weston, were killed on Oct. 26.
"He had the ability to do anything," said his wife of just five months, Cynthia Tidler, who like Weston earned her JD from Harvard in 1997. "He'd seen the worst parts of the world and the worst parts of human nature, but he tried to do the right thing all the time. He examined his words and his actions and the reasons behind them constantly."
Tidler has been here before. Her first husband, Helge Boes, was also killed in Afghanistan. He died in 2003 while serving as an operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency. Boes, too, was a member of Harvard Law's class of '97, where he and Weston were best friends.
"He was selfless in a way that few who pass through Harvard Law School have the strength and the courage to be....I ask you to honor him, in whatever way seems appropriate. He was the best of us." That's what Weston wrote about Boes in a tribute that was published in the law school alumni bulletin in September 2003. As it turns out, he could have been writing about himself.
DRIVEN TO SERVE
Weston, along with DEA special agents Forrest Leamon, 37, of Woodbridge, Va., and Chad Michael, 30, of Quantico, Va., were the first fatalities of the DEA's counternarcotics operation in Afghanistan.
Their remains, along with those of 15 other U.S. personnel killed in Afghanistan, arrived at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware early in the morning of Oct. 29. The plane was met by President Barack Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. and other officials. It was the first time Obama had attended such a ceremony, known as a dignified transfer of remains.
Weston's father, Steve, described how the president, whose visit was unannounced, spoke with every family in the room before standing on the tarmac until 2:30 a.m. to salute each flag-draped coffin. Mike Weston's was the second one off the plane. "There is, in a way, some beauty in the ceremony," his father said, "but it was the worst night. Awful."
For Weston, the chance to serve for the first time in Afghanistan in the DEA's Kabul Country Office was one he couldn't let pass.
"Mike had an incredible sense of service. That's what drove him," said his friend Damon Stevens, who served with Weston in the Marines and now works for the National Counterterrorism Center in Washington. Stevens said Weston always asked himself the same question: "Where on this planet can I have the most extraordinary opportunity to do good work?"
The answer was Afghanistan.
"He read everything he could get his hands on, about the history and culture of the country, the opium production," said Tidler, who works for a Washington-area defense contractor. "He was really excited." She was supportive of his desire to go but at the same time admitted, "I was scared."
He left for Afghanistan in July, where he helped set up the DEA's office in Herat in the western part of the country. The agency now has about 65 special agents in Afghanistan. It's part of a new U.S. strategy to go after drug lords who help fund the Taliban rather than focusing solely on the eradication of opium-producing poppies. "The food there was terrible, the living conditions were terrible," said Steve Weston. "But he loved it."