The sun had just crept above the tree line over the Arghandab Valley in Afghanistan when Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Sitton reached the far side of the dirt road.
The day before, engineers had been clearing a path when one of them stepped on a buried explosive. One had died, four others had been injured. Staff Sgt. Michael Herne and his men had guarded the scene overnight.
At 6 a.m. the next day, Aug. 2, Sitton took over.
"All right," Herne told his platoon mate, "I'm going to sleep."
Sitton, who almost always wore a smile across his freckled face, stopped him. He looked serious. He gripped Herne's hand and squeezed. Herne promised to be back in six hours, then left.
He had just returned to their outpost, about 1,000 feet away, when the air cracked and the earth shivered. A cloud of dust the size of a football field ballooned over the horizon.
Sitton and another sergeant had tripped an explosive. A big one. Both died instantly.
Sitton's death would soon make lawmakers question — even denounce — the war in Afghanistan. Within two days, a general and his entourage arrived at the secluded outpost. A Congressional investigation was under way.
Herne knew why.
On June 4, Sitton had written a letter to U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young. In it, he explained to the Republican legislator that for weeks his platoon had been mandated to patrol empty fields and compounds strewn with explosives. The missions, he wrote, served no purpose. Soldiers were losing arms and legs every day. He had objected, but no one had listened.
Someone would die, he wrote, if nothing changed.
• • •
Sitton grew up as a baseball star at Indian Rocks Christian School. At 5 feet 6, though, most colleges weren't interested when he graduated in 2004.
He enrolled at the University of West Florida in Pensacola, hoping to be a walk-on with the team. There, his family said, he majored in the "fine arts of partying." Sitton transferred to Southeastern University in Lakeland, where he found more trouble. He was a bright kid, just not meant for college.
His parents had long suggested he consider the military. Finally, Sitton agreed to meet with a Tampa Bay area Army recruiter, Scott Phenicie.
"Matt Sitton," Phenicie said, "was the best thing I ever did for the Army."
Sitton aced the entrance exam and had his choice of jobs. He picked the infantry. He wanted to fight for his country, not fill out paperwork on its behalf.
Training in Georgia, he broke his unit's physical training record. He graduated second in a class of about 300.
Just weeks before he left for Afghanistan for the first time in 2007, Sitton worked as a counselor at a Christian camp in Gainesville. There, he met a pretty brunette named Sarah Castle. She was 17, about to start her senior year. They became pen pals.
• • •
Back then, Sitton believed in the war's grander causes: Free the oppressed. Spread democracy. Defend America.
"He found a purpose," said his mom, Cheryl. "He found his way back to a purpose."
Sean Taylor, now 35 and a staff sergeant, was a decade older than Sitton but also new to the service when they met in November 2007.
"Young, brash, cocky," he said of Sitton, "but hilarious."
Sitton used humor to help his men relax in a place where they seldom could. At a shooting competition in 2008, the Outfield's Your Love came on the radio. With chest up and butt out, Sitton broke into a minute-long Lady Gaga dance routine. Then, someone punched him.
He was obsessed with competition, but in an endearing way. He lost only two dares as a soldier: one, to eat five 1,000-plus calorie meal ready-to-eat packages, known as MREs (he finished three); two, to kiss a camel.
In combat, he was fierce.
"Matt and I patrolled together every day, and he was absolutely fearless," said Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Waggoner, 30, who had known Sitton since his first deployment. "I'm not just saying that because he's dead now."
On that trip to Afghanistan, the objective of the 82nd Airborne Division, to which Sitton belonged, was simple: find the enemy and defeat them.
And that's what they did.
• • •
In the span of about eight months, Sitton completed some of the Army's most challenging training sessions.
He started with the month-long reconnaissance and surveillance leaders course.
He then entered the 61-day ranger school and, in a rare feat, passed on his first try. He lost 37 pounds in the process.
Finally, he went to sniper school, graduating first in his class.
Sitton was so focused on training that, for two months, he lost contact with Sarah. They had just been friends, so she didn't think much of it and began dating someone else. When Sitton found out, he wasn't happy.
The two started a relationship within weeks. A sunset beach proposal soon followed and then, on July 4, 2009, they got married.
The couple had fallen in love almost through osmosis. For months, they had bared their souls to each other through Internet messages. They talked about everything: music and movies; goals and dreams; and, with some regularity, Sitton's tattoos.
Sarah didn't necessarily mind tattoos, as long as they meant something. Some portrayed his deep commitment to God: a cross on his chest, a Bible verse on his ribs, a soldier kneeling before another cross on his shoulder.
The tribal warrior sleeve that covered his right arm, though, annoyed her. He later had a gerbera daisy, her favorite flower, inked into the middle of it.
In a way, the blend of those two tattoos, those two worlds, explained Sitton.
His blood ran cold when it needed to. He was trained to kill, and good at it. But he was, at the same time, a doting father and a hopeless romantic.
He once shot an insurgent from more than 10 football fields away; he adored his sniper rifle so much that he named his boxer puppy after it: "Remington."
That same man got misty-eyed at country love songs, and his favorite author was romance novelist Nicholas Sparks. After their son, Brodey, was born last year, Sitton insisted on changing every diaper and holding his boy until Sarah made him stop.
If he had any weakness, Sarah said, sometimes he was just too nice.
• • •
When Sitton was deployed a second time in 2009, the Middle East had started to change.
In the war's early years, the people of Afghanistan had embraced American troops. But that warmth had tilted toward resentment.
"Everybody could see it," said Brandon Southern, 29, who served with Sitton. "Everybody knew most of the populace didn't care that we were there."
It became harder to talk to the locals because they feared the Taliban, he said. The now-infamous insider killings, in which Afghan trainees shot their American trainers, had begun.
Once-defined objectives — find the enemy, defeat them — had grown muddled.
"It was a lot of senselessness," Southern said. "Just walking around. What are we doing this for?"
Sitton didn't waver.
"Matt still believed in the big picture," Southern said. "Free the oppressed."
One night near the end of that deployment, Sitton's base was attacked. A nearby explosion threw him from his bed. He scrambled to his weapon and helped the other soldiers fight back the ambush. Four Americans were killed.
By that time, the Army had begun to transfer duties to the Afghan troops. Among those was tower guard.
That night, Sitton later told his mother, not one bullet was fired from those towers.
After their return in late 2010, Southern left the military.
"I didn't believe in what we were doing," he said. "I lost faith."
• • •
Stateside, Sitton's life had never been better. He had decided to make the military his career. Twenty years, he thought, at least. Though already married, the Sittons had their dream wedding in Florida a month after his return. At Cross Creek Ranch in Dover, they said their vows beneath an oak tree and held the reception in a barn. Sitton cried when he saw Sarah walking down the aisle.
Sarah soon got pregnant and they talked about buying a house near the base in Fayetteville, N.C.
As Sitton's third deployment approached, Brodey was born.
Sarah dreaded her husband's departure, but she also understood. He believed in the mission, and so did she.
She seldom worried.
"He would tell me all the time," she recalled, "God isn't done with me yet."
• • •
Afghanistan in 2012 was far different than the place Sitton had left two years earlier.
Politics, Sitton thought, had overtaken common sense. His platoon worked for weeks on four hours sleep a night, he told his wife and friends. Their missions were aimless. Twice each day for two to four hours, he and his men were mandated to walk through what he described as a "mine field."
"Seriously, there is no rhyme or reason for our patrols other than to meet a time criteria," he wrote to Southern. "So now we are being punished because we as a platoon are saying all this is garbage and we won't go out into freakin' hell and back for no reason."
Sitton and his men, he wrote over and over, felt alone. In prior years, they often received air support during heavy firefights. Because the command staff was so concerned about harming Afghan civilians, that option had all but disappeared.
He told his wife and Southern that the infuriating orders had come from brigade commander Col. Brian Mennes. The Army did not return several calls for comment.
Mennes, Sitton told his wife, had blamed his own troops for the high rate of IED injuries and deaths because experts had determined improvised explosive devices should be avoidable.
"We are serving no purpose. We are leaving and still the command is putting the lives of Afghans over the lives of Americans," he wrote to her. "Col. Mennes said he would rather risk losing a paratrooper than killing an innocent civilian over here."
Sitton still believed in the mission, the greater good, but he seldom mentioned it. He told his wife he didn't know who would make it home. He stopped saying that God wasn't done with him.
"I worry a lot more this deployment. Crazy since there is supposed to be less going on," Sarah wrote to him in June. "And I just have more and more to lose every deployment. The second deployment I don't just lose a friend, I lose my husband. The third, I don't just lose my husband, I lose a father, too."
• • •
Before each of Sitton's trips to the Middle East, his mother prayed for him, reading a passage from the Bible. Before his third, she read Psalm 139.
It's a letter to the Lord. In it, the author writes that God knew the number of days he would have on this earth before a single one came to be.
The men who were with Sitton the day he died still don't understand how it happened. Other soldiers had stepped over the buried explosive, but somehow not triggered it. The day before, a bomb-detecting German shepherd had rested on that exact spot.
The Sittons believe God took their 26-year-old son for a reason. That reason, they don't know yet.
Brodey will grow up without a father to show him how to swing a bat at the T-ball machine Sitton bought when his son was 2 weeks old. Sarah will wake up every day and realize, once again, that he's gone. She sometimes still refers to him in the present tense.
"None of this brings him back. None of this changes anything except for what could possibly happen in the future," said Sarah, 22. "If it finally makes people realize there needs to be a bigger change, then great."
Earlier this month in Washington, one of Congressman Young's staffers read aloud Sitton's letter in a congressional hearing where Young announced that after a decade of war, he thought it was time for America to leave Afghanistan.
Since then, Young said, four Republican congressmen also publicly announced they want the United States to pull out. He said more than 25 others have privately told him the same.
The ultimate impact of Sitton's death on the war and this nation's politics is still unknown. Congress is on break until mid November, but Young is convinced that Sitton's story will resonate for months to come.
"There's something really wrong," he said, "with what's happening in Afghanistan now."
Matthew Sitton was the 2,056th American soldier killed there. In the two months since, 50 more have died.
John Woodrow Cox can be reached at [email protected]
Editor's Note: This story has been amended to reflect the following correction: In July 2010, four American soldiers were killed during an attack by insurgents in Kandahar City, Afghanistan. A story on Sept. 30 about Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Sitton incorrectly stated the number of casualties.