Sgt. Christopher Wilson's mother had no reason to distrust the soldier and his vivid story of her son's death in Afghanistan.
Spc. Brandon Garrison found her in the dark days afterward and provided the details -- the details a mother fears but needs -- of Wilson's last moments after a Taliban attack in Korengal Valley in March 2007.
The futile attempt to save Wilson, the blood, the coldness of imminent death. It was all there in Garrison's account, and he provided the memories she clung to for years.
"I just needed to know. It is a knife wound so deep you just have to know every aspect or you can't breathe," Wilson's mother, Ilka Halliday said.
Except none of it was true.
Garrison's war lies are unraveling, eight years later, after soldiers who were with Wilson when he died came forward.
Garrison was not by Wilson's side when he died, and had instead spent his Afghanistan deployment inside the wire as a vehicle parts clerk.
The false story of the infantry soldier's death has exposed the pain such deceit can cause for survivors. For Wilson's mother and his family, the sting of lies and loss has not been diminished by the passing of years.
But the lie has also unearthed questions about Garrison's other war claims and cast a shadow over the well-meaning support he has received as a wounded veteran.
In Kansas, where he lives, 29-year-old Garrison is well-known as a combat vet who walks with a cane and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and other health problems he says are related to burn-pit exposure. He recently received a donated home based on his status as an honorably discharged veteran and was given a service dog.
To some who served with him in Afghanistan, he was a lackluster soldier who lied about his Army war record and embellished his combat injuries.
His supervisor in Korengal Valley called him a "compulsive liar."
'I need to tell you this'
"I'm taken back to the time where I was holding a dressing on his stomach as he was bleeding out," Garrison told an HBO documentary crew in 2007 as he stood at Wilson's grave in Arlington National Cemetery.
Wilson had died just months earlier. Garrison had told the story before and would tell it again almost a year later.
Before HBO came knocking, Garrison sought out Wilson's mother during a memorial ceremony in 2007 at Fort Drum, N.Y., for members of the 10th Mountain Division who were killed in Afghanistan. Halliday, an Army veteran, raised Wilson as a single mom, then through multiple marriages. The two had a close and often emotionally intense relationship.
"At one point, [Garrison] had turned to me and said, 'This is what happened and I need to tell you this," Halliday said. "He was saying Christopher had died in his arms."
Garrison told her Wilson did not feel any pain and was cold just before he died. Halliday said she thinks of her son as a baby and remembers wanting to know every inch of his body after bringing him home from the hospital for the first time, even counting his fingers.
The details of his death felt like that. Hearing them made her loss more tangible, more real.
Garrison and Halliday began a friendship that lasted about two years, she said. He came to visit Halliday, who lives in Massachusetts, and they would spend hours talking on the phone. Sometimes, she said, she would talk him down from suicidal thoughts and console him when he felt survivor's guilt for her son's death.
"I was like, 'Brandon, you need to get over this. It is not your fault. Christopher would not blame you in any way,'" she said.
In 2008, Garrison was at Walter Reed Medical Center, where he received treatment and a diagnosis of PTSD and borderline personality disorder, according to documents he provided to Stars and Stripes.
A freelance reporter found him there, saying that he stood out as one of the very few patients without visible wounds.
Garrison gave the reporter a detailed account of the attack that led to Wilson's death. He said he was watching soldiers patrol a valley when Afghan insurgents fired rocket-propelled grenades at the troops and that he held a pressure dressing tightly on Wilson's stomach after the attack.
"He was a very good soldier ... a good friend," Garrison told the reporter for the story, which was later published in Stars and Stripes. "He was very brave through it all."
'Inside the wire'
The evening Wilson was killed, Garrison was in the main sleeping tent at the Korengal Outpost, a spartan, notorious Army base near the Pech River, according to interviews with the soldiers who supervised him and served during his Afghanistan deployment.
Before being sent to the valley, he worked on a maintenance support detail in the Army motor pool in Jalalabad, a key U.S. coalition base. The unit there spent its time inside the wire working on vehicles and driving the base airfield with its 6-mile perimeter. Garrison spent about five months in Korengal before returning to Jalalabad.
Korengal, dubbed "the Valley of Death," was among the most dangerous territory anywhere for the U.S. military. Garrison's duties kept him inside the wire and mostly in the base's only air-conditioned unit, a metal container with a satellite connection for ordering parts for military vehicles chewed up by the tough terrain.
"Essentially, he was like a supply clerk but primary only for car parts," said Robbie Myers, Garrison's staff sergeant at the time. Myers later left the Army as a sergeant 1st class.
The outpost had what loosely passed as a "wire." Still, it was rarely hit as hard as the infantry patrols and firebases that faced deadly Taliban attacks daily, Myers said.
Garrison had a relatively comfortable assignment at KOP, but it was not going well with his new unit. Myers, his sergeant in the valley, said he was beginning to see Garrison as the unit's only problem child, a soldier who balked at assigned duties.
Garrison was in the tent March 29, 2007, when Wilson and his new squad and fire team leader Sgt. Shane Wilkinson were setting up security at the newly built Firebase Phoenix. It was barely a base -- more just a point of operations and dug-in firing positions for about 20 soldiers in the badlands of Korengal.
Wilson was a machine gunner and a joker. He was goofy -- his family thought he resembled over-the-top actor Jim Carrey. He could not help but mug for any mirror he passed, pretending he was too good-looking not to admire.
But Wilson was scared. He often put on a brave face for his family. The reality was the valley scared him, and he desperately wanted to get home to his infant daughter.
There was reason to worry. He had been moved to Wilkinson's platoon after it had taken casualties. By the end of the tour in 2007, 10 of the 20 deaths from the 10th Mountain Division happened in Korengal.
For Wilson, it came with little warning that evening.
Out of the dusk came two shells from recoilless rifles. One penetrated a hesco barrier, hit Wilson and killed him. Another hit Wilkinson's position about 100 feet away, wounding three soldiers.
As the sun set, the battle continued to grow and the sky was filled with tracer fire.
"They were everywhere. ... It looked like a scene out of 'Star Trek,' " Wilkinson said.
Back at KOP, soldiers were prepping for a medevac. But a medic at the firebase pronounced Wilson dead, loading his body into a separate vehicle for the trip back to the base. Along the way, the lead vehicle broke an axle and blocked the road.
Myers -- Garrison's supervisor who was listening on the radio at KOP -- jumped on an all-terrain vehicle and drove out to meet the convoy. He helped move the wounded soldiers to the helicopter, then met the medic at the vehicle carrying Wilson.
Alone, the two men checked his body to remove any sensitive items and closed the body bag. They carefully loaded him onto the ATV and drove straight back to the waiting helicopter.
Soldiers from the main outpost had gathered at the landing zone hoping to help. Myers saw that Garrison had come out of the sleeping tent and was standing too close to the medevac team.
"Stay the [expletive] away from the medics," Myers remembered yelling.
New house, new dog
The TV news camera panned up the length of Garrison as he stood leaning on a cane in February 2015 near his home in the Kansas City area. A local nonprofit had rushed an Austrian Shepherd service dog named Taz to the disabled veteran's side for emergency support to help him cope with his war injuries and the recent death of his father, who was also his caretaker.
The donation was part of the local outpouring for the young veteran. In 2014, Garrison stood in front of a crowd of 50,000 gathered for a Memorial Day celebration at Kansas City's Union Station to accept the keys to a donated home. It was given through a program to house veterans called Roofs for Troops run by the nonprofit Nehemiah Community Reinvestment Fund, which did not return requests for comment.
He was handed a big paper key as a symbol of the community's support for his military service.
"Remembering all the people who have lost their lives," Garrison said at the time when asked by a local news crew what the day meant to him.
The dog, house and attention came as Garrison began speaking publicly about his PTSD and the raft of ailments he suffered following his return from Afghanistan, including TBI that caused bouts of vertigo.
"Traumatic brain injury. Honestly, I believe it is due to my ear damage," he told the local Fox News affiliate in a video released in July. "I had both of my eardrums ruptured."
Garrison never reported ruptured eardrums or head trauma to his supervisors, an injury that would have likely been extensively documented and debilitating, Myers said.
In December, he told the Kansas Health Institute News Service that the fumes from burning trash during his deployment could be causing nerve twitches, muscle weakness, fibromyalgia, chronic prostatitis and low testosterone.
"I was making multiple trips to these burn pits a day," Garrison said in an article published by the institute.
The Facebook message from Wilkinson landed in Garrison's inbox late in the evening on May 13, 2015. It included the Stars and Stripes story published in 2008.
"Really, bro? I hope the lie was worth it ... I know for a fact that you were not there when Wilson died, I know that you didn't hold him, and I know that he did not even have a [expletive] stomach wound!"
A fellow 10th Mountain Division soldier had sent Wilkinson a link to one of the many stories published about Garrison over the past eight years. Wilkinson read through them.
"The more I found, the more pissed I got," he told Stars and Stripes in August.
Word spread quickly across social media.
Soon, other soldiers in the unit knew about Garrison's post-war claims, including Robbie Myers.
It was not the first time Myers said he had a run-in with Garrison over the truth.
Back when they were still serving and Myers was his sergeant, he said he found Garrison at the airport ready to deploy wearing decorations on his uniform that he had not earned. Then there was the first time Myers said he warned Garrison about the Wilson story.
After HBO aired its documentary in 2007, Myers and another senior non-commissioned officer confronted Garrison about lying and warned him to stop. Myers had kept the incident quiet, worried that the infantry soldiers might catch wind of the story and retaliate.
At the time, Myers also noted Garrison had pinned a combat action badge to his uniform during the HBO interview. "I knew he didn't earn it because I was the only one who could have put him in for it," he said.
The news coverage of Garrison and his war injuries dredged up the lie about Wilson's death for other soldiers in the 10th Mountain Division. But Garrison's TBI and burn-pit exposure were also suspicious to Myers and another sergeant who supervised Garrison in Jalalabad, Keith Robinson.
Myers knew Garrison never had any contact with the enemy in the Korengal, or any traumatic combat experience.
"I'm not disputing his post-traumatic stress [but] he was never in nothing to where he should have feared for his life," Myers said.
He and Robinson also said Garrison was exaggerating his claims of daily burn-pit exposure.
Troops at the remote Korengal outpost did have some exposure, but not daily, Myers said. In Jalalabad, soldiers in his unit were sent to drop off trash at the base burn pit about once a month, according to Robinson.
All the doubt rankled Wilkinson, who left the Army in August with a Purple Heart and Bronze Star with "V" device for valor. But the lie about Wilson's death was above it all.
The original sin.
He said he wanted an apology from Garrison.
"It doesn't have to be on TV or anything. Call his mom and apologize," he told Stars and Stripes.
He and Myers called the Kansas City Fox News affiliate and warned the American Legion where Garrison worked. It was their mission to keep going and not quit until Garrison set the record straight and offered an apology to Wilson's family.
It might have gone differently, but Wilkinson did not get far after confronting his fellow soldier on Facebook in May.
Garrison blocked him mid-conversation.
'It felt real'
When confronted by Stars and Stripes, Garrison admitted the story about Wilson was a lie, a figment of his addled imagination while heavily medicated and under treatment at Walter Reed after his return from Afghanistan.
"To me, it felt real," Garrison said in August.
"Those five to six months that I spent out there in the Korengal Valley were the most stressful of my life," he said. "I should never have been sent out there. They sent me out there when they knew I had emotional issues."
He cannot figure out why fellow 10th Mountain Division soldiers are attacking his accounts. He said Myers and Wilkinson want to paint him as a narcissistic manipulator who lied to Wilson's mother and received unjustified support in Kansas City for his service.
"I had a conscience" about telling the story of Wilson's death. "As a matter of fact, I have had to go through years of therapy to get over it," he said.
Garrison guessed the other soldiers may be jealous of him receiving the house and the service dog. No matter, he said, he has dealt with enough politics to know everyone lies.
"This is the toughest year of my life but I know nobody is concerned about that," he said, referring to the loss of his father in February.
But the lack of an apology to Ilka Halliday, Wilson's mother who befriended and supported Garrison after he own son's death, has been the most troubling for those who outed Garrison more than three months ago.
"I would be more than happy" to provide her an apology, Garrison said. But he said his legal advisers and co-workers advised him against contacting the family. He declined to elaborate.
Garrison began his interview by saying he would not discuss any of his medical conditions, that he was advised against it. Still, he provided details and documentation to Stars and Stripes.
One document from the Department of Veterans Affairs showed he is rated as 70 percent disabled for anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder with depression, and he has a 10 percent disability rating for "residuals of traumatic brain injury."
PTSD and a borderline personality disorder made him unfit for duty following his "combat operations" in Afghanistan, according to an Army physical evaluation board convened in 2008.
Despite his claim of rupturing both eardrums, Garrison could not recall the incident that caused the injury -- which he blames for his TBI -- or pinpoint exactly where or when it occurred. At first, he said he was uncertain whether it happened downrange, but then suggested it may have been caused by firing his service weapon in an enclosed space, or from a mortar launcher that was once set up near his tent.
"It's all speculative. ... I am convinced that it occurred in Afghanistan," he said.
Garrison said his supervisors in Afghanistan are misremembering the burn-pit risk. He said he was also temporarily deployed to Bagram Air Field for over two months, where he believes he experienced most of the exposure, though Robinson could not confirm that.
A document he provided Stars and Stripes showed he has received treatment for 53 ailments by the VA.
Wearing the Army badge he had not earned on the HBO documentary was just a stupid move, Garrison said. He had assumed he would be approved for it, though he never was.
He said the questions over his service all stem from his years-old lie about Wilson and have unjustly discredited him.
In July, the local television news station confronted Garrison in the front yard of his donated home. He stormed off on camera -- without the cane he had been leaning on in past news segments -- and appeared to angrily shove open his front door.
Later, he called the crew back. He stood in his front yard wearing wraparound sunglasses and read a statement. There was no mention of Halliday or Wilson by name.
"I'd like to apologize first and foremost to the family members and service members who were affected by the inaccuracies of my interview eight years ago," he said. "I take full responsibility for that."
Eight years in hell
For the past eight years, Halliday believed Garrison's story about her son's death. She wants him to tell her he lied.
"I would like him to look me in the eyes the same way he looked me in the eyes when he told me my son died in his arms," she said.
Sometimes there is anger. The sunglasses -- he could not even take off his sunglasses for the television apology, she said. Or say Christopher's name. Once a simple phone call would have been enough, though not now.
Halliday said she is trying to find reasons not to hate Garrison, and she cannot believe he lied to her out of malice. She remembers the "sweet boy" she knew during 2007, the worst year of her life. She remembers the Garrison whom she said named his baby son after Christopher.
"I realize he is sick," she said. "I knew that he had mental issues due to what he had gone through. ... I took him into my heart because I had no reason not to trust him."
As a mother who lost a soldier son, it is hard to stop caring for others wounded in the war.
"I don't want his life to go straight down the toilet," Halliday said. "I don't want another life to be destroyed."
But the ordeal has reopened a painful, barely closed wound for Wilson's family.
"She said to me, 'It's been eight years that I've been in hell,' " said Katrina Evans, Wilson's sister and Halliday's stepdaughter.
Evans, who lives in Florida and is married to a disabled veteran, said she sent Garrison a message on Facebook calling him out. He blocked her, too.
"I think since he had the balls to go to a dead man's mother and lie to her face he should apologize to her face," she said.
Then there is the anger of a father who has lost a soldier son. Doug Wilson, a Vietnam veteran who lives in Texas, was ready to fly to Kansas City to confront the man who tarnished his son's memory. He had found Garrison's address, knew his associates. He was ready to go. But he was eventually talked down. Wilson still bristles when talking about Garrison and how he might be taking help away from other veterans in need.
"I think it is a sick thing," he said of Garrison and the support he has received from the Kansas City community. "You are taking advantage of people who really need this care, so I think it is a disgusting thing to do."
Wilson knew the truth about his son's death from the beginning. Unlike Halliday, the ex-wife he separated from years before, Wilson had spoken with the other soldiers who were with his son when he died. He had no idea of Garrison's lie until his fellow soldiers unearthed it in May.
Despite the divorce from Halliday, he thought of her when Garrison's lie came roaring back into their lives in May.
"Immediately when it ignited, I knew it was going to hurt his mother," he said.
The outing of Brandon Garrison has not swayed some in Kansas City from supporting him. Others are confused and frustrated.
Brian Scott, an Army vet and member of the Patriot Guard Riders, presented Garrison with his newly donated home in May 2014. He led a guard procession of motorcycles to home before turning the key.
He said group members are supporting Garrison, who has been remarkable in supporting veteran causes such as suicide awareness.
Garrison confided in Scott that he regrets the lie about Wilson's death.
"He has admitted to me a lot of things he has done wrong ... A lot of the things [Myers and Wilkinson] are saying are just their opinion," Scott said. "His medical conditions are not from his own mind."
Luana Schneider, co-founder of the nonprofit Tempered Steel, worked with Garrison, sending him out to events to speak on veteran issues.
"I thought he was trying everything possible to help those who need it. It just seemed like he was trying to help," she said.
Schneider and her son, a soldier who was disfigured in Iraq in 2006, created the group to raise awareness about the consequences of war injuries and heroism. They send combat vets to speak at schools, companies and community groups.
"It seems like he does have some troubles and issues," she said.
Schneider said she always had the impression Garrison was an infantry soldier but was unsure whether he told her that. She knew that war wounds can often be hidden or unseen.
The group split with Garrison several months ago after he came to Schneider and told her about the questions over his war accounts. She said he has since gone "off the grid."
Schneider said she was not ready to judge Garrison and is struggling to understand the revelations.
Paul Chapa was not as hesitant. He runs the Kansas City nonprofit Food Industry Serving Heroes, which donated two service dogs to Garrison this year.
Chapa and Garrison were introduced by the mother of a service member who had been killed downrange. Garrison had befriended the woman, who was a member of American Gold Star Mothers, a survivors' group. The mothers considered him a caring veteran with PTSD, a vet who could have been their son.
His group fast-tracked the service dog for Garrison at the end of his father's terminal fight with cancer. It was a highly trained animal and a donation ultimately worth about $30,000, Chapa said.
"We moved heaven and earth trying to get this fellow not just any dog but the dog his father who served in law enforcement and the military always wanted him to have," Chapa said.
Three weeks later and after his father's funeral, Garrison called Chapa and said the Austrian Shepherd was scaring people. He wanted a different dog. The group ended up having to swap out the dog.
"We went above and beyond for this guy and to hear all these claims are untrue, that he exploited a soldier," Chapa said. "How could he do that?"