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Soldier Defended Adopted Home

Nigerian Immigrant Killed in Iraq Witnessed 9/11 Attacks

By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 29, 2005; Page B02

Francis Obaji was born in Nigeria and raised in New York. And when he watched the World Trade Center towers collapse Sept. 11, 2001, as he waited for the Staten Island Ferry, he decided he had to become a soldier.

He died in Iraq.

The coffin of Army Pfc. Francis C. Obaji of New York is lowered into the ground at Arlington National Cemetery. (Photos Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)

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And on a bright and bitter January day, as family and friends clutched each other and wept, Pfc. Francis Obaji was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Obaji, 21, had wanted to be a doctor. He was supposed to have been home by the end of March.

As Obaji's flag-draped silver coffin glistened in the wan winter sun yesterday, two priests conducted the funeral in both English and his native language of Ibo, with rituals and hymns from Nigeria and from St. Gabriel's Episcopal Church, his church in Queens Village, NY.

The Rev. William Willard of St. Gabriel's, who traveled to Arlington with Obaji's family, praised God and asked that He "make us aware of the shortness and uncertainty of human life." A mourner withdrew from the crowd and mopped his eyes behind a newly planted tree. A child dangled a yellow doll and looked off into the clouds.

Obaji, a college student and the oldest of five children -- his youngest sibling is 4 -- had shipped out for Iraq in September as part of the New York National Guard's famed Fighting 69th. The unit was formed by Irish immigrants during the Civil War, at the height of anti-Irish immigrant fervor, when no other units wanted them. Now, the 69th is made up of America's newest immigrants, including Obaji and Alain L. Kamolvathin, also 21, a Thai immigrant who died with him.

The two were out on patrol, military officials said, riding in a Humvee in Baghdad on Jan. 16, when the vehicle rolled over into a ditch. Kamolvathin died that day. Obaji died the next day at a military hospital in Baghdad.

Obaji's father, Cyril, a limousine driver in Queens who had come to the United States to work for 15 years before bringing his family over in 1994, told New York newspapers that perhaps his son had come under enemy fire or had swerved to avoid one of myriad improvised explosive devices that have cost the lives of so many in Iraq. Pentagon officials, however, said the deaths were classified "non-hostile." An investigation continues.

At Arlington, the six-soldier honor guard carefully folded an American flag. A co-celebrant began to chant in Ibo, calling Obaji "my hero." The flag was presented to Obaji's aunt, Maggie Obaji, as were Obaji's Good Conduct Medal, Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

Family members told New York newspapers that Obaji, who called home frequently, didn't agree with the reasoning for the war but wasn't afraid of dying. In recent days, his mother, Violet, has been so heavy with grief that she could not rise from the couch, crying out in Ibo "Francis is gone! He took me with him." A distraught Cyril Obaji lamented in the New York Daily News that although his son was "a brave soldier," he was lost in a "useless war."

Obaji was the 112th soldier killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom to be buried at Arlington. The small white gravestones now take up three of the most recently filled rows on a wide, grassy field patched with snow. "We know we're going to have more," said Arlington historian Tom Sherlock. As a sole bugler played a mournful taps, a large yellow backhoe rumbled by.

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