Soldiers move through the wheat field, scanning the windswept plain for signs of trouble. The six of them, dressed in fatigues and body armor, wear the sunglasses and bushy beards popular among the special forces.
They are a few miles outside of Ab Khail, a small Afghan hill town near the Pakistan border, deep in Taliban territory. It's a primitive village, a place of crumbling brick hovels and mud-walled huts where men play polo with the head of a goat and where open sewers line the streets. This is one of the first battlefields in America's war on terror.
Today they're looking for an al-Qaida explosives maker and for Taliban sympathizers. Following GPS coordinates, they leave the field and cross a dirt road before arriving at a crude-looking fort. Inside, a group of bearded men are huddled in the shadows clutching Kalashnikov rifles.
These clearly aren't Afghan farmers, thinks Staff Sgt. Layne Morris, a 40-year-old veteran soldier from Salt Lake City and one of the unit's leaders.
Suddenly, shots come from a hole in the compound wall. The soldiers duck. Explosions rock the ground. Morris finds shelter behind a grain silo. After a few moments, he rises to launch a grenade from the M-4 strapped around him. The moment he pulls the trigger, something hot and hard slaps him in the eye. He hears a crunching sound in his head as white-hot pain spreads across his face. For a moment, he wonders if he's dead.
A piece of shrapnel has hit him in the nose, cut back into his skull and severed an optic nerve. He crawls in the dirt, searching for his rifle until medics pull him back behind the silo to staunch the blood gushing from his face. The fighting rages for almost an hour.
When the gunfire finally stops, five soldiers charge into the compound. They find two al-Qaida fighters under the rubble, their bodies badly burned and cloaked in dust. One has two gunshot wounds in his chest; he wears a pistol in a holster, and an AK-47 lies by his side.
Then a moaning sound comes from the back of the compound. The dust stirs, obscuring a child-sized body. One of the Americans fires two rounds into the figure.
When the soldiers approach, they can see that this is no hardened al-Qaida soldier. His face is soft, free of stubble. His wrists are thin and his knees bony. No more than a boy, he is covered in soot and bleeding from shrapnel lodged in his chest. Two bullets are in his back.
After two American medics work to revive him, he moves his arms and his legs, then looks up. "Kill me," he whispers in English. "Please kill me."
The soldiers refuse.
Today, more than six years later, the skinny 15-year-old who lay dying in the dust has become one of the most famous and controversial figures in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. His name is Omar Khadr, and he is the only Westerner held at the prison camp just across the Florida Straits from Miami.
Now 22, he is also its youngest detainee, accused of throwing the grenades that wounded Morris and killed Army medic Christopher Speer in that 2002 firefight. Though his trial at the camp was recently suspended, he stands to become the first child soldier ever tried by the United States. After years of torture and isolation, he is both a symbol of America's many mistakes in the war on terror and a breathing example of the reason for the camp's existence.
The Pitch's sister paper, the Miami New Times, had the only American reporter inside the Guantánamo Bay camps for Omar Khadr's January 20 hearing, likely the last one to be held in Cuba, and for President Obama's order the next day to close the place. Cases like the child soldier's represent perhaps the new president's most difficult challenge: what to do with the men — now further radicalized by torture — who would almost certainly threaten Americans if released.