Troops learn early on to call peers by their last name. But for Pfc. Gabrielle Babbitt, she was drawn to a fellow soldier she just calls Alex, the guy with a “silly” Texas accent.
She met Spec. Alexander W. Missildine while training in summer 2015, with her coming from Fairport Harbor, Ohio, and he from Tyler in East Texas. Both were learning to become Army truck drivers.
Babbitt went to the Ohio National Guard, with Missildine heading to Fort Polk, La., to serve in the 10th Mountain Division, most of which is based in New York.
Missildine volunteered to go with the unit to Iraq, Babbitt told The Washington Post, to relieve elements of the 82nd Airborne Division, which led the mission to advise and assist Iraqi forces during the bloody fight to retake Mosul from the Islamic State. The troops sustained causalities, including 1st Lt. Weston C. Lee, who was killed by a roadside bomb blast in April.
“I didn’t want him to be the next person I see on Facebook who lost their life over there,” Babbitt said.
Her worries were realized Sunday when Missildine, about two weeks into his deployment, was killed after his vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive, raising to at least 13 the number of U.S. troops killed while fighting the Islamic State there and in neighboring Syria. He was 20.
He was killed in Salah ad-Din Province northwest of Baghdad, a region that includes the key cities Tikrit and Samarra. Another soldier, whose name has not been released, was wounded during the incident.
“I told him, ‘You have to promise me you’ll come back.’ I had a feeling something was wrong, because normally he’d send a message throughout the day just to say hi,” said Babbitt, also 20, “and I didn’t hear from him at all.”
It is unclear what Missildine was doing when the attack occurred. Key highways linking Syria and Iraq wind through Salah ad-Din. ISIS militants captured large swaths of territory there starting in 2014.
Since January, at least five U.S. troops have been killed in action as part of the Pentagon’s operation to oust the Islamic State from its main strongholds, according to Defense Department data. Another 25 have been wounded by hostile action.
Sunday’s attack comes one week after a French special operations soldier was killed battling the militant group, marking that nation’s first combat fatality in Iraq and Syria — though officials did not specify where it occurred.
After defeating the Islamic State in Mosul and then Tal Afar, U.S.-backed Iraqi forces have turned their attention to Hawijah, a densely populated city north of Baghdad. Another operation is underway in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, where the Islamic State was ousted in February 2016.
Missildine was awarded the Bronze Star, Purple Heart and a Combat Action Badge, the first two of which were likely awarded posthumously, officials said.
Babbitt said her heart was shattered over the news.
“We were counting down the days until he got back,” she said. “And now I’m buying a plane ticket to go and bury him.”
Andrew deGrandpre contributed to this report.
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