MOSUL, Iraq -- The 21-ton Stryker attack vehicles pulled into the neighborhood of al-Whada just after noon. Their rear ramps dropped simultaneously, disgorging dozens of American infantrymen into the cold rain.
The soldiers had multiple tasks on this day. In addition to hunting insurgents and searching houses, they were to help get out the vote for Sunday's national elections. For the next three hours, soldiers armed with assault rifles and election fliers moved warily through al-Whada's muddy streets, trying to get Iraqis to embrace democracy.
Soldiers from C Company's 1st Platoon work to get out the vote on the west side of Mosul's al-Whada neighborhood.
(Steve Fainaru -- The Washington Post)
The inherent danger of the mission was driven home at 3:30 p.m. A single shot rang out, and 1st Lt. Nainoa K. Hoe, 27, the popular leader of the 2nd Platoon, C Company, 3rd Battalion of the 21st Infantry Regiment, fell dead in the street.
"Treat him! Treat him!" screamed Staff Sgt. Steve Siglock, one of his closest friends. The shot that killed Hoe on Saturday was followed within seconds by a blizzard of gunfire aimed at his exposed platoon. It was already too late for Hoe, but his men stepped directly into the gunfire in a desperate attempt to save him while fending off the unseen insurgents.
On the campaign trail in Iraq, U.S. troops are almost alone. Violence has kept away the election monitors, international peacekeepers and nongovernmental organizations that normally perform the basic tasks of electioneering in nascent democracies. With not even the candidates out on the streets, the role of getting out the vote has fallen to thousands of infantrymen like Hoe, soldiers who are menaced by the possibility of instant death.
"The one thing people got to understand here is you got to have two faces" in Iraq, said Sgt. 1st Class Corey Myers, who was Hoe's platoon sergeant. "One as a friend -- as a helper -- and one as a soldier. And you got to be able to switch faces in a second."
The elections, more than any previous event, highlight how dramatically the U.S. military's role has changed since the March 2003 invasion. In this increasingly complex environment, infantrymen are called upon not only to fight a deadly insurgency but also to perform civil affairs missions and "information ops" normally the province of noncombat military units and nongovernmental organizations.
After a day of handing out election fliers in the driving rain, Hoe was cut down while escorting members of a military intelligence team to a medical clinic. The team wanted to know why the clinic had turned down free medical supplies.
"This is the mission at hand," said Lt. Col. Michael Gibler, the 3rd Battalion commander. The Army had lost one of its "future leaders," he said, adding: "I don't think I'm any more bitter about losing a young man for a CA [civil affairs] mission, or an election mission. The bottom line is we have to get it done. And the sooner we can get it done, we can all go home."
Hoe, a lanky Honolulu native, had taken command of the 41-man 2nd Platoon in April -- two months before he was married and five months before his battalion, which is based at Fort Lewis, Wash., deployed to Iraq. The command was the fulfillment of a dream for Hoe, who after several years as an enlisted soldier enrolled at the University of Hawaii so he could return as a commissioned infantry officer.
"We have a saying in the infantry: You have tab wearers and you have tab bearers," said Staff Sgt. Hank Moreno, 35, of Tempe, Ariz. "Lieutenant Hoe was a tab bearer. He was part of it, he was a part of us. He didn't just wear it."
Proud to Be Hawaiian
Hoe quickly won over a skeptical platoon by mixing levelheaded decision-making with a playful sense of mischief, straddling the fine line between leader and friend, his soldiers said. He was an intellectual who one minute would debate the role of the Kurds in post-invasion Iraq and the next would launch surprise air pistol attacks on his men, who responded in kind. For a time, Hoe also served as the platoon barber.
A surfer and swimmer, Hoe was so proud of his Hawaiian heritage "you could say he was a nationalist," Siglock said. Hoe's father, Allen, is a Vietnam veteran, and Hoe carried an American flag that his father had carried. His younger brother, Nakoa, is about to be deployed to Iraq as a member of 100th Battalion, 442nd Infantry. Hoe was proud of his family's military history but joked that Hawaii had been better off without the mainland. "He would say, 'We don't have to be a state; we were fine without you, just fine,' " Siglock recalled.
The night before his death, Hoe stood by the campfire that the platoon lighted each night behind its barracks. He was especially happy, his men recalled. His driver, Spec. Enoch Thornton, had sold him a Black Hawk holster for $50. The holster matched Hoe's belt and resolved what he had called "a tactical fashion faux pas."
Hoe stood by the campfire with his men, a familiar grin on his face, quick-drawing his 9mm pistol from the holster like a gunslinger.
Before missions, the military raises its level of readiness to Red Con 1. Hoe would call to his platoon, using its nickname: "Hey, Outlaws, get ready for Red Con Fun!"
Saturday's mission began as it always did, with Hoe imploring Thornton to sing a song by Tenacious D, one of Hoe's favorite bands.