On the morning of Oct. 13, Brittany Bria Gordon piled into a helicopter with a team of U.S. and Afghan forces for the 45-minute flight from her base south of Kandahar to a small village where she would meet up with Afghan intelligence operatives.
Her mission, according to a military police officer on the flight, was to gather intelligence and bring it back to her base, where she would sift through it to help commanders better understand where the enemy was operating.
But the 24-year-old former St. Petersburg High basketball star would never complete the mission. She and a CIA operative were killed by a suicide bomber wearing an Afghan intelligence agency uniform.
Gordon, daughter of a successful St. Petersburg businesswoman and the assistant St. Petersburg police chief, was the first woman from the Tampa Bay area killed in either the Afghanistan or Iraq wars.
In an interview with The Tampa Tribune, the military police officer – Montana National Guard Spc. Steve Beaty – provided the only public, first-hand account so far of how Gordon died.
"It was a very intense situation," said Beaty, 30, speaking by phone from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State, where he is recuperating from severe wounds he would receive later that day.
"When you land, you go out to these hostile areas and you just have each other. You don't even know if the landing zone is cleared. Everyone was on their A-game."
Gordon had joined a large contingent of U.S. and Afghan forces for the flight that day from Camp Nathan Smith to the small Afghan village. They traveled in silence, looking out the windows at the eerily beautiful landscape below.
They were headed to a mission with operatives from the Afghanistan National Directorate of Security.
Gordon, who had recently arrived in Afghanistan but had quickly won over her fellow soldiers with her warm smile and outgoing personality, was on her fourth or fifth mission, Beaty said.
"This was not anything different."
Until it all went to hell.
When the chopper landed, Beaty slung his M-249 light machine gun in front of him, hanging it off his chest for quick reaction. With Beaty out in front, Gordon, their colonel and his contingent began walking toward their arranged meeting place.
"Someone in an NDS uniform was walking toward this big group," Beaty said. "I was the closest to him. I noticed he had ammo pouches on his chest and stomach and a big winter coat on."
Beaty said he started to point his machine gun at the man, but it was too late.
"He looked at me," Beaty said, "and blew himself up."
Beaty said he was "the closest one, by far," to the man.
"It was chaos at that point," Beaty said. "There were 12 casualties all together, six or seven of us and six or seven Afghan forces as well."
Beaty was badly injured by shrapnel that flew into his chest and broke his sternum. Shrapnel also broke two bones in his foot, entered his right leg and right elbow and his face as well.
"Divine intervention is why I am alive," Beaty said. "I should have died."
Gordon took a direct hit from a piece of flying metal, Beaty said. The CIA agent, who Beaty said he only knew as "Cowboy," also was killed in the suicide attack.
As he waited for a helicopter ride to the hospital, Beaty rode beside Gordon.
"I was the last one to get pulled into a facility," he said. "I was there, watching the whole thing. I will never forget it. It was a bad deal."
Several weeks before the fatal explosion, Beaty was riding in a heavy armored vehicle, on his way to meet some Afghan village leaders, when Gordon jumped aboard.
It was sometime in September. Beaty hadn't seen her around Camp Nathan Smith, an outpost south of Kandahar Airfield.
"Hi," Gordon said. "I work in intel. I am going with you guys."
"I was like, 'All right, cool,'" said Beaty, recalling when he first met Gordon, who joined the Army in 2010 and served as an intelligence analyst with the 572nd Military Intelligence Company, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division.
"She was very friendly, very outgoing," Beaty said. "She was always smiling. Had a big smile on her face. She was always happy about something."
Beaty provided personal security for an Army colonel, who worked with Afghan intelligence.
"Brittany had a big part in that," he said. "She would get a lot of information about what was going on, sifting through it and pushing that information up, so people would know what to expect when coming into an area. She had a very important job and she was very good at it."
Beaty said he came to know and like Gordon during the next few weeks.
After the second mission, Beaty said, he and some others were sitting at a table in the camp dining center when Gordon came over and sat down.
"She started talking, not about the mission, but just her life and what she was planning on doing," Beaty said. "She wanted to get into the media."
Gordon, he said, "was fun to be around. She was a good person. Her death is definitely a loss."
Brenda Thompson Gordon, who is still struggling with her daughter's death, said how Brittany conducted herself on her last mission and her colleagues' high regard for her is developments she would have expected.
"That is my baby," Brenda Gordon said. "That's who she was. Very strong, very loveable person."
In the days after Brittany Gordon was killed, some news accounts said she was on a mission to deliver furniture. Though the helicopter she was on did carry supplies, Beaty said, that wasn't her job.
Initially, her mother said, the details didn't count.
"It didn't matter to me, the furniture moving story," Brenda Gordon said. "I was so focused on losing my only child, I couldn't get my head around it. I didn't pay a lot of attention to how it happened."
But as time went on, Brenda Gordon said she had a number of conversations with the military, including her daughter's colonel, who gave her the details.
"It doesn't surprise me," she said. "Brittany never took the easy way out. I am so very proud of her."