A last photo shows Darren James LaBonte on an all-terrain vehicle in Khost, Afghanistan, days before his death. He's smiling.
Athlete, soldier, husband, father — and determined CIA officer.
LaBonte's family had promised him they wouldn't talk about his work. They kept that pledge as they mourned in private after he died along with six other CIA employees and a Jordanian intelligence officer in the suicide bombing at a U.S. base in Afghanistan in late December.
Even now, months after his burial, they won't detail the dangerous work he did for the agency. "We made that promise to him," said LaBonte's parents, David and Camille.
But his family did decide over Memorial Day to acknowledge that he was among the bombing victims — and they decided to tell the world a bit about the man behind the name.
All but two of the CIA employees killed in the blast had previously been identified publicly. The seventh victim, the agency's chief of base, a 45-year-old mother of three and an al-Qaida expert, remains anonymous.
Indeed, anonymity is part of the trade-off for a career in intelligence. CIA families have grieved in silence for decades.
"It's hard to understand," said Ted Gup, author of "The Book of Honor: The Secret Lives and Deaths of CIA Operatives." "It's hard for our entire culture to grasp the nature of this sacrifice. We live in a culture of celebrity where what is not recognized doesn't exist."
Spies, he added, "come out of a culture where what is recognized ceases to exist. The light is lethal."
Described as 'intelligent, complex'
The CIA won't discuss LaBonte, but his parents and wife agreed to shed some light about his death. And over this past Memorial Day weekend, a historic B-17 plane dropped flowers over the Statue of Liberty in a tribute to the seven slain Americans.
LaBonte was 35 years old when he died, ending a career that included service in the military and a series of law enforcement jobs.
"He was a pretty talented guy," said his father, who described the son as "intelligent, complex and an incredible athlete."
LaBonte grew up in Connecticut. He played baseball and football at Brookfield High School. He turned down a shot at professional baseball with the Cleveland Indians when he graduated from high school in 1992 and opted for the Army, said his father, a former Navy SEAL.
LaBonte earned the celebrated black and yellow Ranger patch and was assigned to First Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, one of the toughest units.
In 1999, LaBonte met his wife — Racheal — on a blind date to a Ranger ball in Savannah, Ga., where he was stationed. The following year, they married and he left the Army. But after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, LaBonte wanted to get back into the fight.
"He was hellbent on making this 9/11 thing right," his father said. "That really affected him badly."
LaBonte decided not to re-enlist in the Army, choosing to pursue an education and a career in law enforcement. He graduated from Columbia College of Missouri and received a master's degree in May 2006 from Boston University, where he studied criminal justice.
Along the way, he had worked as a police officer in Libertyville, Ill., and as a U.S. marshal before joining the FBI. The family said LaBonte won a leadership and shooting award at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., then landed in the FBI's New York field office.
'He was a Spartan'
The CIA recruited him, and he resigned from the FBI in late 2006, moving with his wife to the Washington, D.C., area. His father had reservations about the CIA, but his son had always steered his own course.
He was a "man determined to be a part of the solution to the unrest in our world," his mother said.
His parents declined to discuss what he did for the agency. But the elder LaBonte said his son had served in Iraq, Afghanistan and Amman, Jordan, his last posting before he died in Afghanistan. Father and son talked about the perils of his job.
"I don't think he feared death," David LaBonte said. "He faced it."
"He was a Spartan," his wife said. "He had to do these things. I respected him and honored him."
The phone call
Darren LaBonte's parents, who live Arnold, Md., said they had planned a Christmas trip to Italy about the time of the Khost bombing. Their son planned to meet them, along with his wife and daughter Raina, who turns 3 in November. LaBonte's younger brother also was coming.
On Dec. 17, LaBonte left for Afghanistan, leaving his wife and daughter in Amman.
"He was anxious but excited about the mission," Racheal LaBonte said.
His trip to Italy was suddenly delayed. The CIA believed it was on the verge of a major breakthrough in the hunt to kill Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida's No. 2. The Jordanians had a man on the inside who said he had information about the terrorist.
On the night of Dec. 30, while staying in a villa in Tuscany — the day before LaBonte was supposed to arrive in Italy — his wife took a phone call: Her husband was dead.
"You hear it, but you don't comprehend it," she said. "They are words you never want to hear in your entire life."
In a deadly double-cross, five CIA officers, two security contractors and a Jordanian intelligence officer were killed at the remote base in Khost. Six other CIA officers were wounded.
David LaBonte said the U.S. government "took us by the hand" and helped the grieving family make its way back to the U.S. He praised CIA Director Leon Panetta, who made sure his son was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. The funeral was Feb. 1. The chief of base was also laid to rest at Arlington.
"There was some question about Darren being buried in Arlington," the father said. "Within days, Panetta took care of this, which was a big thing for us. I thought he would be standoffish. He has been magnificent with our family. He has been caring and sincere, not an aloof politician."
Camille LaBonte said the CIA has not forgotten her son or what he did for the country.
"They have not left us," she said. "They can't bring our people back, but they do try to honor them in many different ways."
In March, the family attended a memorial service in Amman, where Robert Beecroft, the U.S. ambassador, praised the fallen CIA officer.
"Most of the people in the CIA are just like the rest of us but they have dangerous jobs," said Racheal LaBonte. "He loved his family. He loved his job. It's not about killing people. It's about saving people."