Iraq's Gravity Pulls a Soldier Down

A fateful path from Nigeria, through Brooklyn, to war

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.

image
Liyah Njoroge said her fiancé, Freddie Akintade, seemed on edge when he returned to Iraq in September.
photo: Brian Kennedy

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."


The last visit

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.

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