Mitchell is from Waldo, Arkansas, population 1,600, in the southwest corner of the state. The Where's Waldo? jokes no longer amuse him. He is a father of four boys and was married on September 11, 2001. On every mission he carries three good-luck charms. One is a gift from his parents, a crucifix inscribed with the letters K.O.S.S.—Keep Our Son Safe. The others, a black rubber wrist bracelet and a single dog tag pressed with his nickname, Deucez, and those of two buddies, Skyzap and Spyder. It is only his first tour in Iraq—some of his colleagues have done three—but Mitchell has become a character in the superstition surrounding the unit's endless days. He is called a "mission magnet": Whenever he's on duty, something happens. Tonight the proof piles up.
It is near midnight when we arrive on the scene, circling while the pilots inspect what's below. Humvee headlights carve out a landing zone on an empty road. Soldiers aim their weapons into the blackness beyond, watching for an ambush. We bump down in a cloud of hot dust. The injured man has been laid on a litter and stripped to the waist. Four or five of his comrades run the litter to the helicopter and clumsily, frantically, shove him inside. He has no pulse. Mitchell begins CPR. The helo lifts off for Baghdad.
The soldier is perhaps 20. He is lanky, with knobby shoulders—a boy's shoulders. Green cabin lights wash across his chest, his right arm flops off the litter. Mitchell moves like a piston above him. "Come on, buddy," he says. "COME ON, BUDDY." Sweat pours off him in long beads. Even with the windows open, the helo racing 200 feet (60 meters) above the ground, it is well over a hundred degrees (38°C). The heat, the weight of his body armor, and the frantic pace drain him. He's exhausted, losing effectiveness. After ten minutes, crew chief Erik Burns makes Mitchell get out of the way. Then Burns waves me in, a fresh set of arms.
Medics must use any resource available to them, and tonight I am one. I shove down 15 compressions. The soldier's chest feels ready to crack. I sink all my weight into it, right over his heart, his ribs buckling beneath my hands. My head pounds. Mitchell slumps beside me. We're gonna save this kid, I think. I will it true. We fly on toward Baghdad, over the flat fields, the pinprick lights, the sleeping country. The last minutes to the hospital blur past, a manic, sweat-soaked dream.