Guarding an odd outpost

On June 16, 2007, Pfc. Jacob T. Tracy was standing guard at one of the oddest outposts in Iraq: an abandoned potato chip factory.

Because of its commanding view of the outskirts of Baghdad's Sadr City district, the factory had become the fortified headquarters of Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment. Rockets and mortar rounds were fired at the outpost almost every day, and rolls of unused cellophane potato chip bags had been commandeered to serve as makeshift -- but highly effective -- blast walls.

My conversation with Tracy, a skinny kid from Palestine, Ill., was brief. Like many with soldiers in the outpost, it centered on his unrelenting schedule and the danger of his mission.

The next day Tracy and other members of his platoon left the outpost in a convoy to head back to base, where they were going to repair their trucks and, they hoped, get a chance to rest and call home.

Tracy rode in a Humvee. I was ahead of him in a Bradley. As the Humvee drove alongside a dirty creek, an armor-penetrating bomb, one of the most deadly forms of roadside bombs in Iraq, detonated.

The explosion sent a copper slug into the crew compartment, causing the Humvee to careen into the creek.

Tracy was submerged. The soldier next to him saw Tracy drowning and tried to pull his head out of the water. But his own hand was gone, blown off in the blast.

After the soldiers from the Bradley pulled the Humvee out of the water, I watched as two of them carried the limp, soaked body of Tracy out of the wreckage.

They worked hard to revive him, but he had been underwater too long. A day later, June 18, Tracy would be pronounced dead in Balad, a military base north of Baghdad.

He was just 20 years old.