By Jonathan Weisman and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 30, 2007
Just before Christmas, an Army captain named Brian Freeman cornered Sens. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) and John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) at a Baghdad helicopter landing zone. The war was going badly, he told them. Troops were stretched so thin they were doing tasks they never dreamed of, let alone trained for.
Freeman, 31, took a short holiday leave to see his 14-month-old daughter and 2-year-old son, returned to his base in Karbala, Iraq, and less than two weeks ago died in a hail of bullets and grenades. Insurgents, dressed in U.S. military uniforms, speaking English and driving black American SUVs, got through a checkpoint and attacked, kidnapped four soldiers and later shot them. Freeman died in the assault, the fifth casualty of the brazen attack.
The death of the West Point graduate -- a star athlete from Temecula, Calif., who ran bobsleds and skeletons with Winter Olympians -- has radicalized Dodd, energized Kerry and girded the ever-more confrontational stance of Democrats in the Senate. Freeman's death has reverberated on the Senate floor, in committee deliberations and on television talk shows.
"This was the kind of person you don't forget," Dodd said yesterday. "You mention the number dead, 3,000, the 22,000 wounded, and you almost see the eyes glaze over. But you talk about an individual like this, who was doing his job, a hell of a job, but was also willing to talk about what was wrong, it's a way to really bring it to life, to connect."
"When I returned from war, almost 40 years ago now, I stood up and spoke from my heart and my gut about what I thought was wrong," Kerry said on the Senate floor last week as he recounted his meeting with Freeman. "I asked the question in 1971: How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake? . . . I never thought that I would be reliving the need to ask that question again."
On Thursday, Freeman will be memorialized at his home in California, just days before the Senate takes up a resolution formally stating Congress's opposition to the president's plan to add 21,500 troops to the U.S. force in Iraq. There is no way to know what Freeman would have thought of it, but he would not have been shy about offering his opinion, Dodd said.
Freeman had served out his five-year active-duty tour well before he was sent to Iraq. He graduated from West Point in 1999, then in 2002 was accepted into the Army World Class Athlete Program, training with the U.S. bobsled and skeleton teams in Lake Placid, N.Y.
"It's no exaggeration, he was definitely one of the nicest guys in the start house," said Steve Peters, a team official.
In 2004, eager to get on with his career and family life, Freeman moved into the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR), a pool of trained soldiers not assigned to any unit, to serve out the rest of his eight-year mandatory obligation.
He was in California with a civilian job, a 1-year-old son named Gunnar and another baby on the way in the fall of 2005 when a shortage of officers prompted a large call-up by the IRR of West Point graduates from the classes of 1998 and later -- many of whom had only a few months of service left.
"He was an augmentee, who happened to be called up to fill a slot," said Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Edmond, a full-time staff member at the 412th Civil Affairs Battalion in Whitehall, Ohio, which Freeman was called to join. "It's almost to fill a void," he said, commenting on the Army's deepening manpower shortage, especially in the reserve, which requires it to cobble together units with people from across the country.
Charlotte Freeman, Freeman's wife, recalled her husband's shock upon receiving an Army telegram ordering him back to active duty. "He walked into the house and was totally white," she said yesterday. "He had moved on" from the Army.
"For my sake, he tried to get out" of the deployment, she said. But she knew he felt torn. "A part of him felt very guilty, because he had never gone to Iraq. He had dodged that bullet," she said.
Concerned about leaving his wife while she was pregnant, Freeman was able to obtain a three-month deferral and spend time with their newborn daughter, Ingrid. Just after Christmas in 2005, he grew so concerned about his pending deployment -- and his lack of qualifications to be a civil affairs officer -- that he anxiously contacted a reporter for The Washington Post.
Maj. Tony Nichols, who commanded a tank company that Freeman served in during his active duty, said Freeman "would have gone with a tank crew . . . in a heartbeat" but felt uneasy going with an unfamiliar civil affairs team.
Once in Iraq, Freeman was dismayed to find that his training "had no relation to what they were actually doing," Charlotte Freeman said. "He was appalled," enduring danger but seeing no clear mission, she said. Moreover, he believed that the Iraqis "didn't want us there."
Still, he did his best, working with the governor of Karbala to try to improve security and touching individual lives, such as helping an Iraqi boy who needed heart surgery and obtaining death benefits for an Iraqi interpreter's family. "He truly wanted to make a difference," Charlotte said.
Late last year, Freeman approached the senators at Landing Zone Washington, in Baghdad's Green Zone, "almost out of the shadows," Dodd recalled.
Even though he felt nervous, he told his wife later, he delivered his message with urgency. Soldiers were being deployed to do missions that they were utterly untrained to do; Freeman, for example, an armor officer, had been sent to help foster democracy and rebuild an Iraqi civil society. State Department personnel who could do those jobs were restricted in their travel off military bases by regional security officers who said it was unsafe for them to venture out.
"Senator, it's nuts over here," Dodd quoted Freeman as saying.
Calling him "ridiculously" bright, Nichols said Freeman did not oppose the war but "wanted it to be done better and smarter."
After Dodd mentioned an unnamed Army captain's concerns on NBC's "Meet The Press," Freeman e-mailed him to bring up another concern: the mistreatment of Iraqi interpreters by military contractors.
The connection between Dodd and Freeman went beyond a chance encounter and an exchange of e-mails. On Jan. 20, the day of Freeman's death, his wife was visiting his mother in Utah when a neighbor called to say that a military vehicle had stopped by the Freeman home. Frantic for news, Charlotte Freeman contacted Dodd's staff. The senator's aides learned of Brian Freeman's fate from the Defense Department and helped get military officials dispatched to his wife.
Kerry took the news personally, aides said. In Freeman, he saw something of himself -- a promising young officer, articulate and politically minded. But Kerry made it back from Vietnam.
"All that loss, for what?" Dodd asked.
It was not just Freeman's death that deeply troubled and provoked the two senators, but the way he died, in an apparent betrayal by Iraqi allies. In the days after Freeman's death, Dodd drafted legislation to cap the number of troops in Iraq. Last week in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry backed Dodd in a failed effort to attach the legislative cap to the nonbinding resolution of opposition.
And both men are demanding that the Senate push the confrontation with Bush further. Kerry has resurrected his call for legislation setting a date certain for the withdrawal of troops.
"The notion of sense-of-the-Senate resolutions, what the hell does that mean?" Dodd asked yesterday. "Is that all you got?"