COLUMBIA - This was why all those tears were shed - why they uttered all those prayers.
The 110-mm rocket, launched directly at Zach Milligan's observation post, gave the moonlit Iraqi desert an unexpected second source of light just after midnight, a bright, orange ball that spewed shrapnel from 50 yards away into the station 25 feet off the ground. The force of the explosion shook everything in sight, and without time to worry about becoming a statistic, Milligan reached for his night vision goggles and scanned the horizon.
Knowing insurgent forces usually followed these attacks, Milligan radioed in, determined to not let his fear seep into the airwaves that connected him to the base.
A brutal five minutes passed.
Finally, military police arrived below them, a fleet of Apache helicopters pursuing above.
Military personnel never found the assailant, but Milligan's experience is just one among countless others. Attacks of this nature are common, a sort-of "Iraqi drive-by." An insurgent force led by a man commonly referred to as "The Rocket Man" often fires missiles aimed at militarized locations from the backs of trucks parked miles away, according to Milligan.
No one knows why the rocket crafted for precision missed its mark. Maybe it was the wind. Maybe it was a weapons malfunction.
Maybe it was divine providence.
"He (the Rocket Man) would have points and posts picked out, and would do his best to take down certain points," Milligan said. "For whatever reason, our observation point was one of those targets. Thankfully, the conditions were off just enough that he missed his target."
Three years later, after that harrowing April night in 2005, Milligan is in the third year of his newest challenge: Division I football.
With a 6-foot-1, 225-pound frame that makes him small for a defensive lineman, Milligan, from tiny Hardin, 50 miles east of Kansas City, can't be found on Missouri's two-deep depth chart.
Looking back at where he's been, what he's seen, and what he's done, working toward a Big 12 Conference championship suddenly doesn't seem like such an imperative mission.
He's walked in the punishing Iraqi heat. He's felt the psychological crush of endless days in the desert thousands of miles from home. He knows what it feels like to be a few yards from a death that too often comes too soon.
But none of those things were on his mind back on Sept. 13 when he led the Tigers onto the field against Nevada, proudly towing our nation's flag as the crowd of more than 54,000 joined the 614 back in Hardin in applauding Milligan for everything he'd given them.
Minutes earlier, he had been recognized over the public address system as part of the Tigers' "Salute to America" tribute before the game, complete with a B-2 bomber flyover.
When asked how he would rank the experience, Milligan kept it close to the hip.
"For my wife's sake, I'll say No. 2, next to the wedding," Milligan said. "It was definitely way up there, though. Words can't describe what it's like to have so many thousands of people applauding you, and just you, just standing there."
Zach Milligan met his wife, Ashley, after he returned from Iraq in 2006, and they were married this spring.
Ashley Milligan had trouble expressing her feelings about the pregame tribute as well.
"I was just on the verge of tears the entire time," she said. "The introduction alone was amazing, and I thought that was it. All of a sudden Zach's mom was like, ‘He's on the field! He's on the field!'"
And yet, even though he likely has done more to inspire admiration than any of his teammates, most fans couldn't pick Milligan out of a crowd.
A sophomore in football eligibility but a senior academically, Milligan, 24, spent most of his 11 months in Iraq and one month in Kuwait working as a mechanic. Studying mechanical engineering and playing for a top-five Division I football program already seems like plenty of responsibility, but add a wife at home and his responsibilities as an Army Reserves staff sergeant, and it's hard to imagine the daily juggle doesn't get to him.
Of course, taking responsibility is nothing new for Milligan. He's always been particular. As a child, he would focus all his energy on devouring one food on his plate at a time. A stickler for cleanliness, he would wipe his fork, face, and placemat before switching to the next dish on his plate. Afterwards, not a single crumb of food lingered after the toddler enjoyed a meal. Instead, only a pile of napkins was left behind. Even at four, it was a rarity to see his bedroom in any condition other than spotless.
"The way he is now is really part of being so organized at such a young age," Robin Littrell, Milligan's mother, said. "I think it gets to be a challenge for him sometimes, but he's a really strong Christian, and I know he relies on that relationship a lot. Things always just seem to work out for him."
His traits now are something Tom Milligan, his father, says make him the ideal role model for his three younger brothers.
"He doesn't drink, smoke, chew or cuss, and he goes to church faithfully," Tom Milligan said. "His bed's always made, his room's clean, his automobile is always clean. He's just someone I really appreciate having around for my other three boys."
More than that, though, Zach Milligan's parents can't say enough about his independence.
That independence was never more apparent than the day he decided to enlist in the army.
Both parents were willing to help pay for his education, but with three more brothers nearing the end of high school, Zach Milligan refused. The valedictorian of his high school class, Milligan will only cite "personal reasons" for his decision to enlist.
"He's always been someone who wanted to have rules to follow," Littrell said. "He seemed to have his mind set on paying his own way, and that was the way he was going to do it."
And, since graduating from Hardin-Central High School in 2004, he has.
Forced to play eight-man football at a 1A level, Milligan never gave up the dream to continue his career. Despite spending two years away from organized football, he made the scout team in 2006.
"One time during the summer, we got out and had a tough workout in pretty bad heat. Zach just knocked it out like it was nothing." fellow defensive end Ziggy Hood said. "We were all standing around huffin' and puffin' and he's over on the side doing jumping jacks."
Although being the most well-conditioned may not be enough to earn him meaningful playing time, coach Gary Pinkel stressed the importance of a player like Milligan to further the "team concept." He's not the only one who sees Milligan as a priceless piece of the puzzle.
"Just seeing him out there working so hard, that makes me work harder," senior defensive end Tommy Chavis said. "When I look over and see him giving it everything he's got, I know I've got to give that much more effort."
As one of only a handful of Tigers who are no longer bachelors, having a wife just adds to the differences between Milligan and his teammates off the field. Ashley Milligan say's he's "just one of the guys."
"He still likes to joke around a lot and have fun," she said. "It's neat to see how the other guys respect him, though, because of everything that he's done."
Regardless of what Milligan's teammates accomplish on the field, a single truth remains. It's obvious in the way they interact with him. It's obvious in the way they talk about him. That quiet, undersized walk-on who never seems to find a microphone pointed his way and rarely gets his name called on game days? There's a special kind of respect reserved for guys like him.
"I don't care what you've done, man, if you can survive over there, you can get through anything," Hood said. "This is nothing."