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 hourlong 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.”
Aaron Padgett, one of Weston’s colleagues in Afghanistan, wrote in an online guest book linked to Weston’s death notice in the Washington Post, “You taught me a lot about life and work in a short period of time. I’d feel lucky to be half the genius and warrior that you were. As I know you would want, the Herat Enforcement Group will continue to drive on but it will never be the same without you.”
STEEP HILLS AND CLOSE FRIENDS
Throughout his life, Weston thrived on challenges. Some were physical, like kayaking 2,300 miles alone down the Mississippi River in one month in 2007. He’d allowed himself two months for the trip from Minneapolis to New Orleans but made it in 29 days, paddling for up to 20 hours a day and camping on islands. “He liked to make everything as difficult as possible, to challenge himself,” said Tidler, who recalled how he would put his bike in the highest gear while biking in Rock Creek Park in Washington, seeking out the steepest hills.
Other challenges were academic. He graduated with distinction from Stanford University in 1994 with a joint major in computer science and economics. He went straight to Harvard and initially considered becoming a patent lawyer. Curious and analytical, Weston found the idea of learning about new technology and inventions appealing. His father, Steve Weston, is a prominent land-development lawyer in Los Angeles who grew his own firm, Weston, Benshoof, Rochefort, Rubalcava & MacCuish, to 83 lawyers before merging with Alston & Bird in 2008. His mother, Judy Zarit, holds a doctorate in psychology and practices in State College, Pa. She is the co-author of several books about mental disorders in older adults. Weston, who graduated from high school in State College, was the eldest of five siblings and stepsiblings.
At Harvard, Weston and Boes became close friends almost immediately. Both were disciplined, athletic, frugal and adventurous. The three — Weston, Boes and Tidler — formed a trio in Cambridge. In his tribute to Boes, Weston wrote, “They were my best friends while I was at the law school; knowing them made bearable a time in my life that was otherwise frustrating and disappointing.”
But Weston found what he was looking for on a cross-country flight after interviewing for a summer associate job in California during his first year of law school. The plane was full of Marines and Weston was deeply impressed by “what they were about, what they represented,” Tidler said.
Weston joined the U.S. Marine Corps as an enlisted recruit while he was still in law school. On weekends when other students studied, he trained at Parris Island — and still graduated cum laude.
“He was not going to be just another lawyer and practice law,” said his father, who remains a partner at Alston & Bird. “He certainly seemed to be looking for something that gave him greater passion, greater motivation.” He added, “Money didn’t motivate him in the slightest.”
Indeed, in the insert to Weston and Tidler’s May 2009 wedding invitation, the groom made clear his aversion to material possessions — as well as his sense of humor, which friends described as brilliantly deadpan.
Weston wrote: “GIFTS: We don’t want any. Seriously. We have too much stuff as it is. In lieu of gifts, we would like you to consider the following alternatives. One, enjoy the opportunity to attend a wedding and not have to give a gift; this is what I (Mike) would do, and in fact have done, even when gifts are expected.”
In the Marines, Weston served first as a judge advocate at Camp Pendleton in California. A prosecutor, his caseload ranged from charges of unauthorized leave to domestic violence to theft. “One of his goals was to bring a case under every crime in the Marine Corps book,” said Tidler. “He was really excited to be able to bring one for hazarding a vessel.”
His friend Damon Stevens was a defense-side judge advocate at Pendleton and went up against Weston in court numerous times. “He was outstanding,” Stevens said. “He was known as a great trial lawyer, and he worked harder than everyone else, which made it difficult for those of us on the other side.”
But Weston went out of his way to avoid mentioning his Harvard degree. Stevens recalled an incident when an officer ordered all judge advocates to display their “diploma” on their office wall. “In typical Mike fashion, he wouldn’t disobey an order, but he had his mom mail him his preschool diploma. He took his combat knife and stuck it to the wall,” Stevens said. “He truly was a person who did not gain his identity from Harvard.”
But for Weston, being a military lawyer was not fully satisfying. He took advantage of every supplemental training course offered over the years — helicopter deployment, urban combat, mountain training, martial arts.
In January 2003, he deployed to Kuwait in advance of the Iraq invasion. He handled logistics for setting up enemy prisoner of war camps, then worked on convoy operations. He left active duty in late 2003, a time when it seemed like the Iraq war was a “mission accomplished,” with the most challenging work already done. Once home, he joined the Marine reserves.
With his academic credentials and military service, Weston was recruited by the CIA and the FBI, said his father. But he chose the DEA. “It offered more direct action, more boots on the ground,” he said.
He was assigned to the Richmond, Va., field office, where he proved to be not just smart academically but street-smart as well. He learned the vernacular, cultivated sources and was known for initiating more than his share of cases.
In a mock news article he wrote to amuse his friends (“Richmond, the small city with the big murder rate, can now boast the first ‘green’ drive-by shooting” from a hybrid car), he made fluent references to smoking sherm, crack rocks, pimping and grinding, while mimicking the dry style of the Associated Press.
Weston wasn’t home long before his reserve unit was called to Iraq in January 2005. He didn’t have to go, but he volunteered to deploy. He told his father, “I’ve got to go. These guys have never been in combat and don’t know Iraq, and I do.”
But he was done being a military lawyer. In the reserves, he was able to change jobs, becoming a combat engineer. He served in Iraq until November 2005, training Iraqi police officers in Anbar province.
He was home for nine months before being deployed voluntarily once again. From August 2006 to May 2007, he commanded a platoon in a boat on the Euphrates River. “He loved it,” said Stevens.
Lt. Col. Peter Finan commanded Weston’s primary reserve unit, the 4th Combat Engineer Battalion in Baltimore. “If there was a guy I wanted to be like, it was Mike,” Finan said. “I never saw him lose his temper, he never said ‘I don’t know how to do that,’ he never came up with excuses.” He added, “He could have been a general one day.”
Weston, who had been promoted to major, was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal for superior performance of his duties in June 2009. In recommending him for the award, Finan wrote, “Throughout his tour Major Weston’s dynamic leadership, untiring devotion to duty, keen attention to detail, focus on battalion operations, exceptional resource management, and wide-ranging training knowledge distinguished him as an exceptional leader and operations expert.” Finan, in Weston’s last performance review, called him “a crucial asset to the Marine Corps…he should immediately start serving in positions of greater responsibility.”
Over the years, Weston had lost contact with his law school friends Tidler and Boes, who married in 1999. Boes died in February 2003 in a training accident when a grenade exploded prematurely. At the time, Weston was in Kuwait, but when he returned home, he got back in touch with Tidler.
Over time, their relationship deepened. “Cynthia and Mike had shared values about how to live, about finding a purpose in your life,” said Siobhan Dupuy, a friend of the couple who is an attorney at the Department of Justice, where Tidler previously worked. “They were very much in love and had an extremely strong connection. And they always seemed to have a lot of fun together,” she said.
Dupuy noted that Tidler was supportive of Weston’s desire to serve the country. Still, she said, “She missed him constantly. Cynthia was willing to endure his absence because she loved him and she respected his passion to serve. Cynthia and Mike enjoyed a tremendous mutual respect. They spoke every day and their bond remained just as strong when Mike was away.”
The two were married in a small outdoor ceremony held during Memorial Day weekend at the home of Tidler’s sister. Montgomery County, Md., Circuit Court Judge Nelson Rupp Jr., for whom Tidler once clerked, officiated.
Weston told his wife it was an absolutely perfect wedding — except other guests ate all the pigs in a blanket, leaving just two (plus one half-eaten) of the pastry-wrapped mini-hot dogs for him. It became a running joke. The photo on the invitation to join Weston’s family for a private reception after his Nov. 6 memorial service showed a heaping platter of pigs in a blanket.
The memorial service, which was held in Quantico, Va., was attended by about 1,000 people, with Rupp presiding. Weston will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Tidler said it’s still hard to believe he’s gone. “It feels like it can’t be right, can’t be possible,” she said. “Mike seemed so indestructible.”
Jenna Greene can be contacted at email@example.com.