Iraq's Gravity Pulls a Soldier Down

A fateful path from Nigeria, through Brooklyn, to war

Among the family, friends, and colleagues who inhabited his short life, the broad, handsome National Guardsman went by several names.

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.

image
"Freddie" Akintade in Kuwait, February 2004
photo: Jeffrey Gross

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."


Lawrence and Ojo

"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.

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