Iraq's Gravity Pulls a Soldier Down
A fateful path from Nigeria,by Kareem Fahim
through Brooklyn, to war
Specialist Segun Frederick Akintade
on top of his Humvee in western Iraq,
August 2004 (photo: Jeffrey Gross)
His college professors and classmates knew him as Lekan, a shy, diligent student working toward a bachelor's degree in computer science. The men from Alpha Company, 108th Infantry Regiment out of New York State, called the Nigerian-born machine gunner with the deep voice by his last name, Akintade. His family, many of whom traveled from Lagos two weeks ago to mourn their boy, just called him Sunday, for the day he was born.
And to the surrogate family he had gathered in Flatbush since he immigrated to the U.S. in 1997—Liyah Njoroge, his Kenyan fiancée; Lawrence Koleosho, his "cousin"; and Ojo Oyebisi, another friend—he was just Freddie.
Specialist Segun Frederick Akintade was killed when a bomb, buried in an Iraqi road, detonated near his Humvee on October 28. His company had set out on patrol at eight in the morning, and linked up with another unit to transfer prisoners.
On the way back to headquarters, Forward Operating Base O'Ryan, just south of the town of Al Dujayal, they were attacked. No one in the armored Humvee was injured apart from Freddie, who died within minutes of the blast. The army says he would have turned 35 in December.
His friends in New York say Freddie saw military service as not just a noble calling for a country he loved, but perhaps an immigrant's lucky path to achievement, and status. He hoped that serving would help him bring the rest of his family, including four siblings and his mother, to the U.S. Friends remembered him weighing different plans for his future, maybe working with computers, joining the police force, or getting his MBA. And he wanted to build a life with Liyah.
Like millions of other Americans who join the National Guard—and many of the young, black men who live in neighborhoods like Flatbush, where U.S. military recruiters routinely trawl—Freddie couldn't afford to pay for college, even though he worked nights as a computer systems consultant at Bear Stearns, the investment bank.
So he joined up a few months before September 11, 2001, securing money for his classes at City Tech, medical benefits, and a life insurance policy.
Two years later, in the spring of 2003, Freddie realized a dream by becoming an American citizen. In February 2004, he shipped off to Iraq, joining the thousands of foreign-born soldiers on active duty there. Some 29,000 U.S. troops are green-card holders. Since the September 11 attacks, another 18,341 have become citizens.
For many immigrants, the armed services offer a largely color-blind system in which they can advance on their own merits. Serving in the military can also be a way of proving one's patriotism. "It's a statement of commitment to the nation," said David Segal, a sociologist at the University of Maryland who specializes in military affairs. Wartime, he said, raises the cost.
But for Freddie, Iraq was a cruel gauntlet, another trial for a young immigrant who had already been tested.
"I remember clearly the day he told me he was going to Iraq," said Belinda G. Smith, who taught Freddie in a class on personnel psychology and called him smart, with a beautiful face. "I was writing on the board at the front of the room, and he walked in and asked if he could talk to me. We went out into the hallway, and he told me he had gotten his orders. My jaw dropped open.
"He was terrified," she continued. "He was trying to be courageous. I went back in and told the rest of the students. People don't make connections. They think it happens to people they don't know."
"He thought he would be defending New York," said Lawrence Koleosho, Freddie's best friend, who lived a few blocks away from him. "Even after 9-11, he thought he would just have to guard the subways." Freddie was one of the roughly 55,000 reservists and National Guard soldiers serving in Iraq. Many of these "citizen-soldiers"—at least the ones who enlisted before 9-11—thought the most action they'd see was putting down a riot, or maybe guarding a nuclear power plant.
According to military officials, six Army National Guardsmen from New York have died in Iraq. The most recent fatality was David Roustum, whose Syrian-born father tried to convince him to flee to Syria when the deployment orders came. Roustum, 22, had been part of the military honor guard that performs funerals for soldiers. He was killed when his unit was ambushed.
Lawrence sat at home late on the night before Thanksgiving, wearing red shorts with cargo pockets, and a white T-shirt. Stick-thin, he said he'd had trouble eating anything except fruit in the last three weeks. His phone rang constantly. Liyah called, to find out what time Lawrence was picking her up for Thanksgiving dinner. The pair would join Freddie's family, who were staying with Lawrence's parents in East New York.
On a table in front of him sat a thick, leather-bound photo album filled with pictures of Freddie, most of them with Liyah. There they were at an amusement park; at home, playing with someone's kid; at his graduation in 2003, when he earned an associate's degree in computer science. And there were dozens of pictures of Freddie alone, clowning for the camera. "He used to think he was the sexiest guy around," said Lawrence, laughing.
There were other pictures, of Freddie the soldier, dressed in his fatigues, cleaning his gun. And then a photo of just the weapons, an M240-B machine gun and a 9mm pistol. There was one of him on patrol at Camp Smith, in the woods of Peekskill, New York, where he trained for several months in 2003. And toward the back of the album, there was another of him in a short-sleeved button-down, sitting alone. He looked angry. "He wasn't happy the last time he was here," said Lawrence.
"The last time he called me on the phone from Iraq, he said he might not fight anymore," Lawrence remembered. "He was still angry that he hadn't gotten an extension to stay." Freddie, it turned out, had requested another two weeks on top of the two-week furlough he got in September, but had been turned down. He told his superiors he wanted to get married. Lawrence also said he simply had too much to take care of, including sorting out a case of identity theft.
During that September visit, Freddie, Lawrence, and their friend Ojo Oyebisi had one of their typically spirited discussions, here on the worn white leather couches that take up half of Lawrence's tiny apartment. In happier times, the three, along with Liyah, went out to clubs like Nell's, on 14th Street, or Metronome, blending into the New York scene. There was a regular rotation of house parties too, and they went as a team.
"We got into an argument over Iraq," said Ojo, who, like Lawrence, is 30 and from Lagos. "I didn't support the war at all. And I don't think he supported the war." Still, Freddie argued that America had a duty to stabilize Iraq. At one time, the three had discussed joining the National Guard together, just as they had applied for their American citizenship together. But Ojo decided that three to six months was too long to go away for training; and then Lawrence got the financial aid he needed for college, and decided army service wasn't work the risk.
The argument lasted 45 minutes. "In the end, we agreed to disagree," said Ojo. The two discussed attacking Freddie and breaking his legs, so he wouldn't have to return to the war. They were only half joking. Freddie's unit wouldn't come home until February 2005, which was uncomfortably far off, especially with the way things were going in Iraq.
Lawrence had accidentally erased several of Freddie's voice-mail messages, except one. He played it a couple of times. "Lawrence, pick up the phone," Freddie had said. Then he insulted him in Yoruba.
"He thought the war was unjustified," said Lawrence. "He thought it was Bush's war, and it was disastrous. But he said he was trying to make the best of it."
Hong Li taught Freddie three computer science courses in a row at City Tech and had gotten used to having the tall Nigerian around. During their last semester together, Freddie left for Iraq, and so she had the class run a famous mathematical model, in the student-soldier's honor.
The so-called "Josephus Problem," named for Flavius Josephus, borrows from a battle during the Jewish revolt against Rome. Josephus and 39 fellow soldiers hid in a cave, surrounded by Romans. They decided they would rather die than surrender, and so they gathered themselves in a circle. Moving clockwise, they killed every seventh man. Josephus is said to have figured out where to place himself, in order to be the last person standing. When he was the only one left, he joined the Romans.
In class that day, the students picked their favorite numbers, and Li picked for Freddie. As luck had it, in their simulation, he was the soldier who survived.
"I feel bad for international students," said Li, who is from China. "They come here and struggle—myself too. I have another student in the marines. He hasn't been sent yet. I hope he'll never be sent."
Freddie had been gone a long time. The last time Liyah saw him before his visit in September was around Valentine's Day. She still has his flowers, carefully dried, on her dresser in the ground-floor apartment she shares with her brothers and sisters in Queens. A picture of her with Freddie sits in a frame on the table next to her bed. He's wearing the same short-sleeved shirt from the angry picture in Lawrence's album.
"I forced him to take these pictures last time he was here," she said. The furlough had begun happily. He had proposed to her in his apartment, and they planned to get married at the courthouse in Brooklyn. But then he found out that someone had stolen his identity and applied for credit cards in his name, and the trip turned sour. He spent most days on the phone, on hold, trying to sort it all out before he had to leave.
The couple met three years ago on the dancefloor of Nell's, when she was 22. They were both there with friends, including Lawrence. After a night of clubbing, they all had breakfast together, and Freddie gave her every phone number he had. Liyah called him before he got home.
She said he always made time for her, through a manic schedule. He was in class all day, and worked all night at Bear Stearns. He would have to go away weekends on National Guard duty. He slept in the afternoons, mostly. He liked to cook for her.
Liyah said Freddie changed after he returned to Iraq. He seemed on edge. He no longer sent letters, and they just communicated through instant messaging. "If they can't help me out," he told her, "why am I fighting their war?" On Election Day, her sister took her out for a meal and told her Freddie had been killed. Liyah didn't believe it. She went home and sent him an e-mail. "I've heard rumors that something happened to you," she wrote.
Freddie had kept the dangers of Iraq from his fiancée, assuring her over and over again that things were fine, even routine. He'd told her about his friends in his platoon, guys he called Jim and Perez. He had visited one of Saddam Hussein's palaces in Tikrit. Mostly, though, Iraq was a chore, an errand to run before they got on with the next stage. "I have to be here now," he had written in another letter, "so that I will have the rest of my life to be with you."
"I don't know how to put my foot forward," Liyah said, leafing through old cards from Iraq. "I want to hear his loud voice again. I want him to cook for me one more time."
Gravity in Iraq
In many ways, Sergeant Jeff Gross said, things were routine for Freddie's platoon in Iraq. The town where they were stationed was mostly Shiite, and he said that things were quieter than in other parts of the so-called Sunni Triangle. Alpha Company helped patrol the supply route, Highway 1.
Freddie was popular, he said. "There's always friction in a group like this, but he never seemed to have a problem with anyone." Part of that was a function of his age, Gross said, and the fact that he was from Nigeria, a country that, like Iraq, had seen its share of conflict. He was among the company's best gunners, with steady hands and bulk enough to absorb the recoil. He was also one of the platoon's best ambassadors. "You never had to restrain him, and you never had to treat him like a child. He was an optimist. I never heard him complain about our mission." He had a big laugh, the sergeant remembered, that could wake you up at night.
Like all National Guard soldiers, Freddie knew his responsibilities when he signed up. But as Gross put it, "I never thought New York infantrymen would be deployed to Iraq."
Gross, who lives eight subway stops away from Liyah, in Astoria, was in the Humvee with Freddie the day he was killed. "The bomb went off pretty much under the truck," he said. Specialist Perez was driving, with Gross in the front passenger seat. "We thought we'd hit a land mine. I felt most of it. There was a lot of smoke, and sparks. The truck lifted up, and we rolled forward on the force of the blast."
When Gross got his bearings again, he saw that Freddie was slumped forward at the turret. Blood started to seep down into the Humvee. A piece of the bomb had skittered past all the protection that surrounded Freddie, slicing through a gap in the gunner's armor plates and slipping in somewhere above his Kevlar collar and below his helmet.
After Freddie was gone, Gross said, things changed in his platoon. "They don't get upset with each other as easily. Or argue about silly things." He said he had worried that they would take out their anger on Iraqis. "You can't allow that kind of emotion—people acting their anger. But it hasn't been an issue. This platoon has never made a mistake and shot a civilian, or used too much force."
The attack that killed Freddie was the worst the platoon faced in its eight months in Iraq. "It was like he was struck by lightning," said Gross, who is returning to Iraq this week.
It's hard to re-create a person from memories, and the details of Freddie's life are often confusing. The men in his platoon believed that he was well-to-do, and that his family owned a textile plant in Nigeria; his friends in New York said he supported his relatives. He was said to have opposed the war politically, but Sergeant Gross called him "gung ho," and said when he returned from his furlough, he was jealous that he had missed a firefight. He appears to have kept his two lives—the one in Brooklyn and the one in Iraq—separate.
Then there is the issue of his name, which he changed, inexplicably, a few years ago. Liyah said she didn't know what was behind the switch. "He had things that were private," she said. "So do I."
But everyone remembers him fondly in Brooklyn, where he had carved a life for himself. "He's the kind of person who doesn't like it when a place is too quiet," Lawrence recalled. "If we would be sitting at a meal, and it was too quiet, he would bring a silly argument, and say something like, 'Maybe it's not gravity that pulls objects toward the floor.' Then we'd talk about that for the rest of the meal."