Iraq's Gravity Pulls a Soldier Down

A fateful path from Nigeria, through Brooklyn, to war

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."

Specialist Segun Frederick  Akintade on top of his Humvee in western Iraq, August 2004
photo: Jeffrey Gross
Specialist Segun Frederick Akintade on top of his Humvee in western Iraq, August 2004

Details

Related:

  • Read Kareem Fahim's blog, Winning an Earthquake.
  • "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."

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