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Band of brothers: Heroic unit ripped apart in Fallujah

Published: Sunday, November 21, 2004

FALLUJAH, Iraq — When the fighting began, the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry was the tool that punched the hole in Fallujah.

That's what they were there for. The Army battalion's Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles destroy with an efficiency and ferocity unmatched by the limited firepower of the Marines, who have a comparatively small number of armored vehicles.

Staff Sgt. Carlos Santillana's squad of eight men arrived early on Tuesday Nov. 2 in the heart of the insurgent stronghold of Jolan, a neighborhood in the northwest of the city. His company, Apache, was ahead of schedule and so it took over a group of school buildings next to a small park. The plan was that the Marines would then catch up and start moving house to house, block by block, killing or capturing insurgents.

A look at the squad

About some squad members of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry:

• Staff Sgt. Carlos Santillana
Role: Squad leader
Age: 24
Hometown: Abilene

The quick-thinking leader carries a large knife on his flak jacket "for backup" but described killing insurgents in Najaf as "a sick feeling." "I don't care too much about the politics of this place," he said. "I'm just here for a year; I'll kill whoever I gotta kill, then I'm going home." His wife, Rebecca, studied psychology and gives him "free therapy" on the telephone. They have a 15-month-old son, Jaden.

• Sgt. Akram "Abe" Abdelwahab
Role: Point man
Age: 28
Hometown: Spartanburg, S.C.

The married father of a 5-year-old girl and 3-year-old boy, he keeps a picture of them inside his helmet with the words "We Love You Daddy" printed on it. A tough-talking soldier with numerous tattoos, his squad mates jokingly question his sanity. "He's not right in the head," says Santillana. But Abdelwahab, who is of Lebanese descent, also has a compassionate streak. He was critically wounded Nov. 13 in Fallujah while leading the storming of a house occupied by armed insurgents. Now hospitalized, he is suffering from severe nerve damage in his left forearm that paralyzed his left hand, and also from severe wounds to his right leg.

• Sgt. Scott Cogil
Role: Medic
Age: 20
Hometown: Rantoul, Ill.

Attached to Santillana's squad, he exhibits a calm demeanor and personal bravery that endear him to the rest of the squad. Though his main job is to care for the wounded, Cogil also pitched in when the squad stormed armed positions. When Abdelwahab was wounded Nov. 13, Cogil worked intensely and successfully to keep him alive until they reached a base hospital.

• Sgt. Jose "Freddy" Velez
Role: Rifleman
Age: 23
Hometown: Copperas Cove (raised in Lubbock)

He married his high-school sweetheart, Nickie, when they were both 21. He was killed Nov. 13 by a bullet wound to the neck while providing covering fire that allowed his squad mates to rescue the injured Abdelwahab. A motorcycle and computer-game buff who was teased good-naturedly by his squad about his weight, Velez wore thick glasses and a wedding ring. He hated the noise of warfare and often wore earplugs or listened to Linkin Park and other bands on his headphones while riding around Fallujah.

Copyright © 2004, Newsday, Inc.
This article originally appeared in Newsday, a New York City-area newspaper, that had a reporter traveling with Lubbock soldier Sgt. Jose "Freddy" Velez's squad in Iraq.

That evening, Santillana's men could be forgiven for thinking that someone, somewhere had it in for them.

By Nov. 13, only two of the eight were still standing. Five lay on stretchers and one was sheathed in a body bag.

"That's war," San tillana would say days later, his world clouded by sadness, no longer the quick-talking, wise-cracking dynamo he had been before the battle. "That's all I can say."

The battle of Fallujah was, on the face of it, a mismatch of historic proportions. History's largest military superpower was facing down a band of perhaps 2,000 nonuniformed insurgents whose most lethal weapons were homemade car bombs and armor-piercing rocket-propelled grenades.

From the start to the finish, the 2nd Battalion worked as a jackhammer. With one part of the city conquered, the battalion's tanks and Bradleys would move on to the next, heading south, sometimes steadily, sometimes in an aggressive rush.

People around the battalion knew about Santillana's guys. There were some characters who stood out. Sgt. Akram Abdelwahab — "Abe" to everyone — was the point man, the crazy one who would walk up to roadside bombs to examine their wiring. Spc. Stanley Goodin was tall, handsome and street-smart. And Sgt. Jose "Freddy" Velez of Lubbock was jocular and loved by all for his constant grin. An officer who knew them warned journalists who were beginning to befriend them to keep a distance. They pushed things to the limits, he said.

That was a backhanded compliment in Army terms. It im plied bravery as well as risk-taking. And as they looked for trouble, trouble seemed to find them.

First, the school buildings came under rocket attack that Tuesday; an armor-piercing rocket-propelled-grenade, or RPG, sliced through their Bradley on Friday morning, and an hour and a half later, the men had to hazard a storm of bullets to save a soldier whose left arm had been blasted off by another deadly RPG.

Three close calls, a punctured Bradley, an injured driver and still Santillana's men went out to the fight in the southwestern section of the city, known as Shuhada, the Martyrs' neighborhood.

Spc. Eric Watson couldn't drive because of the shrapnel in his body, so Pfc. Ken Price, 20, of Renton, Wash., took over. Together with the other Brad leys and tanks, they headed south again.

"We had taken fire from a mosque earlier the previous day," Santillana said Monday, sitting in the twilight in the Iraqi home that Apache was temporarily occupying.

Slowly, in detail, he did what he's been doing involuntarily ever since Nov. 13: He reconstructed the events.

The eight men of Santillana's squad, plus Spc. Scott Cogil, searched the mosque and went out the back door, finding a flak jacket, a Kalashnikov rifle, a hand grenade and ammunition under a car. It was like bait. Two squads, about 20 men, began searching more houses for more weapons and perhaps insurgents.

Soon they found both. In some houses, military-age men huddled in rooms, not fighting back as the soldiers shot the locks off the doors. There were weapons there too. They de tained the men and moved on to more houses, finding more wea pons, more military-age men.

Finally, Santillana's squad came to a two-story gray house. It looked suspicious. Perhaps it was just a feeling, perhaps it was because all the other homes around were smarter, more expensive-looking. So they threw a grenade over the wall into the courtyard and one into the house. Then they rushed in, with Abe, ever the point man, kicking the door down.

"Oh, -," Santillana heard Abe shout, and an instant later there was a huge burst of gunfire from inside the house, several wea pons firing at once.

"We were shooting everywhere," Santillana said. "Ser geant Abe came crawling out the door, he was just covered in blood."

Santillana told another of the men to grab Abe and get him out of there. The soldier did so, but as he was pulling Abe out by the collar straps he "half spun around." Shot in the shoulder, the soldier nevertheless grabbed Abe again and kept pulling.

Another soldier threw a grenade into the house. All the time, Santillana said, Velez stood shooting into the house.

Two grenades came back out at the men, injuring another two.

"Velez still stood," San tillana said, "pumping away ... Velez moved back out into the street, shooting into the house. He told us to go."

It was chaotic. Different members of the squad were now wounded, some lying on top of each other, some still standing and fighting, others diving for cover. Now there was another insurgent shooting from behind them.

Cogil was taking cover and looked at Velez, who had finished the rounds in his magazine.

"I need to reload," Velez called out, Cogil recalled.

The next time Cogil and Santillana, from their different positions, looked at Velez, he was face down on the ground, motionless.

Santillana has no memory of it, but he's been told that all that time he was yelling into his radio for help from the nearby Bradleys and tanks. It took them only minutes to arrive.

"This all happened in less than three or four minutes," Santillana said. "It was just a mad minute of hell."

Two Bradleys came along the street. Soon there were seven there and four tanks.

They unleashed their full might on the two houses where the insurgents were.

Santillana, Cogil and the others who could walk dragged their wounded friends into the backs of the two Bradleys. Cogil didn't know if the guy he'd spent 191/2 hours sitting next to the previous day was dead or alive. "Velez is a heavy dude," he said. "I didn't know if he was just knocked out."

There was a lot of blood and a lot of bleeding in the two Bradleys as they charged north through Fallujah to the 2nd Battalion's temporary base just north of the city at an old plaster works.

There, the battalion's medical team stabilized the living. Abe was bleeding profusely from the artery on the inside of his thigh. The day before, after racing back safely from the rescue mission, he had sat in the back of the quiet Bradley and said, "It's not my time."

It still wasn't. It was Freddy Velez's time.

For more than 10 days, a Newsday reporter had spent many hours with the men of Santillana's squad. They traveled in the Bradleys of 1st Platoon, Apache Company.

There's no room in there for irritating your fellow passengers, so you make friends quickly. Everything becomes a joke. It's a sin to take a ribbing to heart — every soldier seems to be a target for teasing in his own individual way. Only the imminent threat of death ever seems to alter that must-laugh credo.

Velez took up more room than any of the other seven guys in the squad. Abe once painted a flat pebble with a picture of a face, a pistol and a belt with the words "Fat kid" and gave it to Velez. In the back of a Bradley, Velez laughed every time anyone made a joke about his weight. He genuinely seemed to sense the affection in the teases, laughing as he tucked into an unheated, foul-smelling piece of processed chicken.

He sat in the center of the left-side bench, with Cogil to his left and Abe to his right. During the night, the three of them managed to fall asleep at moments. Suddenly young-looking as they slept, Cogil and Abe slumped on Velez's big frame.

Told, when they woke up, that they had looked like babes in the wood, Abe said: "It's great; it's like having a big pillow to lie on." As ever, Velez grinned what Santillana on Monday called "that big —eating grin."

Each soldier dresses slightly differently from any other. Velez had thick spectacles, what Santillana called his "birth-control glasses." He wore a wedding ring. His earplugs, to protect his ears from the blasts around him, were kept on strings to prevent them getting lost. Under his helmet he wore a beige "flight sock," a thin, ski-mask-type covering that keeps soldiers warm at night. And when Velez felt like opting out of the conversation or the rattling of the Bradley, he would plug in the earphones from his personal stereo and listen to bands such as Linkin Park.

In the back of a Bradley, talk takes dozens of different turns during a night and day. Each topic seems to be allotted a certain time — perhaps half an hour, perhaps 10 minutes.

One day, Abe decided he was going to post a photograph of Velez on a gay personals Web site and see how many responses Velez would get. Then the men all discussed the popular site, on which some of them had posted pictures — the happily married Velez not among them. One boasted about his high ratings on the site, which allows viewers to judge the looks of random strangers.

The patter was quick, the private language of siblings.

On Friday, Nov. 5, a few days before the battle began in Fallujah, Santillana was running his men through a routine they had been through hundreds of times: storming buildings. White tape representing the walls of a house with a narrow corridor down the center lay among the pebbles in an exercise area of a huge military base just outside Fallujah.

Santillana wanted to keep his guys sharp, so he put them through drill after drill. The more automatic their reactions and responses, the better chance they would have of staying alive when the real thing happened. They'd been through it all before, kicking down doors in the southern city of Najaf during a battle in August, but Fallujah promised to be more dangerous. The fighters there were expected to be more professional, better prepared, more committed to fighting to the death than the ragtag Shia militia the soldiers had fought in Najaf.

After the drills the men gathered round and chatted. Abe, a father of two from Spartanburg, S.C., had been home on compassionate leave when Najaf had happened. His marriage was failing, he said. He was the squad's point man, the one who always led the way, the one who seemed to have no fear. More than any of them, he was relishing the coming fight.

"I want some," he said. "'S'all good."

Santillana, 24, of Abilene talked about his wife, who had studied psychology and gave him free therapy on the phone. He spoke of his acceptance of death, his unease with the necessity of killing.

Velez was quiet and smiling.

Abe lay on a stretcher on Nov. 13 in the shade provided by the medical tent, a buddy holding a cigarette to his quivering lips. The corn-flour-fine dust of the desert north of Fallujah puffed in the breeze around him.

His right knee was bound up, his left hand deformed perhaps for life, a doctor said, and for once Abdelwahab, just when he had proved his courage beyond doubt, wasn't playing the hero.

"I ain't gonna lie to you, buddy," he said, looking up from his stretcher. "It hurts like a -."

Cogil looked down at the man whose life he had just helped save. And at another three soldiers from the same squad, all lying on stretchers in the shade, waiting for the helicopters to arrive. One had his head propped up on his helmet, sobbing quietly as a buddy held his head, pressing his forehead against the injured man's. Spc. Benny Alicea lay silent, staring at the sky. Goodin was laughing and grinning a bit maniacally, calling out about how he was going to have ice cream, his left knee now holding several pieces of metal.

Cogil walked past them all and pulled aside the dark khaki flap to the aid tent, which had been deliberately closed so other soldiers could not see what was inside.

On a raised cot to the right lay a black body bag. Cogil is 20 years old. He's from Rantoul, Ill. With the calm of an elderly surgeon who has seen it all before, his face showing nothing but gentleness, he moved to the side of the bag and unzipped it all the way.

Inside lay the body of Sgt. Jose Velez, 23, still in his uniform. His usually wide eyes were narrowed to frozen slits, his frequent and broad grin now just a slim parting of the lips.

Cogil pulled down Velez's shirt and looked at the bullet wound below his friend's neck. He examined it closely but briefly.

"Is that what got him?" he asked another medic.

Yes was the answer.

"Thank you," Cogil said, zipping up the bag.

He walked out into the November sunshine.

"I wanted to make sure that's what it was, that there was no chance,"' he said. "I put him on the bottom (of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle when the troops withdrew from the scene of the tragedy). All I could do was hold his hand. Just pray the whole way back. Just worked on Sergeant Abe 'cause I could see he was bleeding all the way down his pants."

Cogil took a can of Coke.

Then he walked over to talk privately with the battalion's chaplain, Capt. Jonathan Fowler. Finally, his face changed. Cogil bowed his head, and his face crumpled into tears.

Nov. 13 was a nasty day in Copperas Cove, Texas: Un seasonably cold and drizzly, the clouds hanging over the Army town of 25,000 like bad news.

Nickie Velez is trying to be strong. That's what her husband asked of her, "no matter what happened," she said Monday, speaking from Texas. She sobbed into the phone.

"He was a wonderful man," she said. "He was brave."

She spoke in short sentences. They had been high school sweethearts in Lubbock, she said. They met when they were both 16, and they had been married for two years.

Carlos Santillana was lonely. With Price in the seat of a Bradley, he had been the last man standing from his squad when the shooting was over. On Monday evening, he sat on an upturned cinder block on the front porch of Apache company's temporary base.

"I only got one guy (Price) left from my squad; everybody else is gone. You turn to your left, you turn to the right ... I sit in the back of a Bradley and it's no one I'm used to working with."

He does know them, his new squad, from the platoon; but it's not the team he'd helped to mold into a close-knit unit, a tiny fraternity with its shared jokes and intimacies.

"Under the present circumstances," he said, "I think I'm doing all right."

Immediately after his soldiers had been flown away in two helicopters, Santillana felt lost.

"Sat by myself, cried a lot," he said, his thin face newly pale, his liquid talk lost for now. "It's just ... uh ... kinda ... replayed over and over ... what happened, in my head. And it scares the — out of me every time I think about it. All I did was to ask the chaplain to pray with me, pray for Sgt. Velez, pray for his wife, that she finds peace somewhere. It's not going to be easy. It's never easy."

Rainey ordered him to take a day off but Santillana was then back to work, back to the streets of Fallujah. He's sleeping badly, keeps waking up at night. He's sick of explaining to people what happened. He's just glad the whole platoon didn't walk into that building.

He was worried for his injured guys, excited that two of them would soon be returning to duty. And by Tuesday, Alicea and Sgt. Travis Bristol were back, reconstituting half the squad.

Velez won't be coming back, though. And Santillana has that knowledge written all over his taut face.

On the morning of Nov. 13, after he had tended to Abe and the other injured men, he asked someone a question he thinks he already knew the answer to. He'd been pushing it to the back of his mind.

"Where's Velez?"

"Sergeant, come here," the other soldier said.

"He didn't need to tell me anything else," Santillana said Monday. "I didn't feel myself drop to the floor."

He made his way to the body bag.

"I didn't open the bag. I basically knelt down beside it," he said. "I think I said I was sorry a hundred times."

Copyright © 2004, Newsday, Inc.