War Stories: Death of a Soldier

This week, NEWSWEEK begins “War Stories,” the first in its series of Web reports about the daily lives of the soldiers and families of the 4-23 infantry battalion of the 172nd Stryker Brigade. Informed in late July that their yearlong deployment in Iraq would be extended for another four months, the soldiers are now fighting on the front lines of the Battle of Baghdad. The impact of this move on the troops and their loved ones was the subject of the report, " Straight to the Heart ,” in NEWSWEEK's Sept. 18 issue. During the unit's extended tour, which is expected to last until December, our reporters will continue to tell the story of the 4-23 through the individual tales of a small group of soldiers and the families who anxiously await their return back at Fort Richardson, Alaska, and in hometowns across America. But as the close-knit 4-23 community learned this week, not everyone will be coming home now.

The call came over Capt. Brad Velotta's radio with the audible clarity that only shocking news can bring. Shots fired, the voice said, with one soldier down, "shot in the head by a sniper." Velotta and his men jumped up from the chai -and-chat session in the home of a local sheik in Baghdad's Shaab neighborhood, just north of Sadr City. They had been discussing the role of Coalition forces, the purpose of the Stryker mission and even such concepts as war and peace. Now reality came crashing back in. "This is the kind of peace we were talking about," Velotta remarked ironically as he hurried out of the house.

This account of that afternoon, and what followed at the hospital, is based on the recollections of NEWSWEEK photographer Lucian Read, who was embedded with the 4-23's Blackhawk Company. It was the 33rd day in what's been dubbed the Battle of Baghdad. It was the day when the battalion lost its first soldier, after having an almost unheard-of year with no deaths. It was also the day when Velotta's worst fear—the nightmare all leaders prepare for—came true. " This is the best opportunity to be killed," he had said the week before, noting the risk tended to be worst while a unit is new to an area. "The learning curve is steep."

Now it had happened. When they heard the news, Velotta and his men sprinted down the street, keeping an eye out for the sniper. They piled into their Stryker armored vehicles and headed off in a convoy to the military hospital in the Green Zone. The men in Velotta's vehicle didn't know who had been hit. Names aren't said over the radio, only the soldier's battle number. "Who is it, who is it?" asked the unit's translator, an Iraqi man who had been with the 4-23 for over a year.

Driving fast though the streets, they heard another, final, chilling call on the radio. It came from Capt. Patrick (Doc) Williams, a physician's assistant and the battalion's medic. A year earlier, on one of his first patrols in Iraq, Williams had saved the life of soldier who was mortally wounded. His efforts won him the Silver Star for Valor. "Based on the condition of the patient, we don’t need to drive in a way that puts more people at risk," he said. Translation: the soldier didn’t make it.

When the body of Spc. Alexander Jordan, 31, was unloaded at the hospital, it was already wrapped and covered. The doctors at the hospital prepared Jordan for a viewing in the morgue—cleaning his wounds, taping his eyes shut. The men filed in, faces stoic, shocked, teary eyed. The unit's translator, whose name is being withheld for security reasons, did not contain his grief. He had lived and sweated alongside the men of Blackhawk Company for more than a year, volunteering to come with them from Mosul to Baghdad. He wailed, hiding his face against the blast walls. An hour of whispered and broken conversations passed. Williams said that he had never before lost a wounded man who had been under his care. His uniform and boots were darkened with blood. Before leaving, Velotta reminded his men: "Revenge is wrong, this can't change the way we do our job."

The U.S. military says the job of the 4-23 in Baghdad is to stop an Iraqi civil war. To do this, the 172nd Stryker Brigade is focusing on the neighborhoods in Baghdad that are "the fault lines of sectarian violence, the dead zones," says Lt. Col. John Norris, the 4-23's battalion commander. These are the places in the city where empty lots are dumping grounds for literally hundreds of bodies, places where the graffiti on the walls say things like AVENUE OF DEATH. In these neighborhoods, the mosques have become mini-fortresses with sandbagged fighting positions on the roof and the trash-filled streets are closed off by makeshift barriers of concrete blocks, concertina wire and stumps from palm trees. Going house to house-so far the 172 nd has searched more than 50,000 homes in Baghdad—they are trying to establish security so the struggling Iraqi government has some breathing room to "to get them on their feet, to delay prolonged enemy contact," says Norris. "You're buying time for the systems to get into place." The idea is to use the "swarm effect" of the Stryker vehicles, putting an overwhelming presence on the streets in an attempt to make them safe again.

The civil war, though, has likely already begun. Or so it seemed in the first neighborhood they secured. The first of these fault lines for the 4-23 was Ghazaliya, a mostly Sunni area in western Baghdad. The residents were surprisingly happy to see Americans—Sunnis have traditionally been hostile to the U.S. presence—saying it was the first time in weeks they were able to open up their stores and walk outside freely. Many of the Iraqis appeared pale, blinking in the bright sunlight. Homes on every block were abandoned, and sewage filled the streets in what was once a place for the upper crust of Iraqi society. After a week of searches in the second week of August, the commanders saw promising signs—the 4-23 raided five mosques, and in three they uncovered weapons suspected of being used to kill Americans and Shiites. In the Al-Sadiq mosque, affiliated with the Iraqi Islamic Party, there were mortars hidden in the minarets and scores of IED's buried in the courtyard. At another Sunni mosque they discovered a suspected "beheading knife." They even searched the Iraqi Islamic Party's headquarters in Ghazaliya, discovering more bombmaking equipment, black coffins to smuggle weapons and documents detailing how the IIP was running a network of militiamen—and possibly death squads—to guard the neighborhood. In the neighborhood of Shula, the 4-14 battalion in the 172 nd, busted a cache of weapons suspected of belonging to the Mahdi Army, the militia of Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr. A blow, the commanders said, to each side in the sectarian conflict.

The third week of the operation brought them to the neighborhood of Adamiyah. Despite violence that continued throughout much of Baghdad, their intelligence reports were saying they were making a dent in the areas they had searched. Attacks in Baghdad appeared to be falling in some areas, with a sharp drop off of in kidnappings. But they also started to feel the pinch of Iraqi politics—no longer were they allowed the same access to mosques, which they believed to still be hiding weapons. And it also became apparent that much of the sectarian violence was originating in Sadr City, an area that has been basically off limits to Coalition forces. The soldiers even took friendly bets on when and if they would do a full-scale operation in the impoverished Shiite neighborhood. "We're handcuffing ourselves," said one officer. Then he added, referring back to Vietnam: "Now I know how guys 30 years ago were feeling."

It was in another Shiite neighborhood, Shaab, near Sadr City, where Specialist Jordan was killed. Twice earlier in the day the 4-23 had received gunfire; a few weeks before, near the same neighborhood, Velotta's convoy had been unsuccessfully IED'd in a complex ambush. But on that day, Sept. 10, 2006, the streets were crowded with more than 50 children, and the adults did not appear hostile. They hadn't seen American forces in a long time, they said, an observation the soldiers in the 4-23 had heard over and over again. The peace was shattered by a sniper's bullet. Word spread quickly back home in cryptic e-mails and strained phone conversations with loved ones. The memorial service for Specialist Jordan of Miami was held last night in Camp Stryker, Iraq. But the grieving for a fallen comrade and son will go on.