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Eddie isn't about to get arrested at an anti-war rally, but he's not exactly a staunch supporter of the so-called Global War on Terrorism either. "I can see Afghanistan—maybe," he says. "But I think Iraq is just a waste. I think Bush sold us on a b.s. war, and we're stuck there."
In any event, Eddie says he didn't want his son, who at 17 needed his permission to join up, in either Iraq or Afghanistan. But he signed the papers anyway.
"He told me, 'This is really what I want to do,' " Eddie recalls. "So finally, reluctantly, I signed."
He didn't find out until after Michael's death that his ex-wife, Jamesetta Janssen, had actually gotten the ball rolling when it came to their son joining the Army.
After moving back in with his mom, Michael was no longer having the type of problems he'd had while living in Staten Island with his father. But he had screwed up his schooling so badly in Staten Island that, at 17, he was still a high-school freshman whose prospects of graduating anytime soon looked dim. Michael was doing a good job working at his stepdad's auto-repair shop, but he seemed lost, his mother recalls, adding: "I felt he needed more structure in his life. He was just a confused young man—that's what he was. He had no idea what his life was going to be."
So one day, Jamesetta, on her own, went to the recruiting station in Manahawkin, New Jersey, and talked to Sergeant Payne about signing her boy up.
She says that when she told Michael about it, he said he'd been thinking about joining the Army, too. "We were on the same page but didn't even know it," she recalls. Eddie's not buying that. He says he thinks his ex-wife and her husband, Roy Janssen, not only pushed the boy into joining up but even made the decision for him.
"Most moms would be pushing their sons not to join," he says bitterly.
Jamesetta denies forcing Michael's hand. And a story in a local Atlantic City newspaper two weeks before he shipped out for basic training indicated that Michael appeared to embrace the decision: "I'm not worried about the war," he was quoted as saying in the March 21, 2007, story about local recruiting efforts. "I've always liked the military. I plan on making this a career and staying in for 40 years if I can."
He had already taken a positive step: In order to join the Army, Michael Fremer worked with a tutor for months after school to earn the required GED.
There's little debate that once Michael was in the Army, he felt for the first time in his life that he had an identity: He was a soldier, a private second-class. Although Eddie still had misgivings, he grudgingly admits that it changed his son for the better.
"He told me loved it, loved the lifestyle," Eddie says. "I asked him where he saw himself three years down the road, and he told me he wanted to re-enlist. I told him: 'I wish you didn't enlist the first time.' "
In late December, Michael came home for a 10-day leave, and Eddie spent a day with him. They went to two malls in New Jersey, where Eddie bought his son some clothes, and they talked about Michael's pending deployment.
"He couldn't wait to go overseas," Eddie says. "It terrified me."
But Michael never made it out of Fort Polk, Louisiana. Six weeks later, he was dead.
The 80 pages of documents that Eddie Fremer pried out of the Pentagon tell this story of his son's last day:
At 4 a.m. on February 13, Michael reported to Fort Polk's motor pool with the rest of the 88th Brigade Support Battalion's Bravo Company. Michael's unit was brand-new. One major general described it in his best Pentagonese as being "a mission-tailored force that conducts support area and maneuver-support operations and consequence management to ensure the mobility, freedom of action, and protection of the forces they support." In other words, it's a mobile-support unit for combat troops.
That morning, the unit's convoy commander gave a safety briefing. The soldiers would dismount from the vehicles and walk near the trucks. The commander reminded the drivers not to run them over. He talked about the speed and distance that the vehicles needed to maintain. He reviewed the dangers of spiders and snakes, and, even though the temperatures would rise from the 40s to the 60s that day, he warned about the possibility of hypothermia. The eight-vehicle convoy rolled out just after six that morning.
The mission for that day had been evaluated beforehand as low-risk, and, for the next five and a half hours, "the training went without any hiccups," the convoy commander would later report.
At one point, Bravo Company came under fire by an "opposing force unit"—soldiers firing blanks who pretended to be Al Qaeda or the Taliban. Michael and the other good-guy soldiers were equipped with electronic devices (the Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System, or MILES) that would register if they were hit by laser beams affixed to the bad guys' weapons. After laying down "field fire" to clear the area, Michael's unit removed those posing as dead or injured and towed their disabled wrecker.