Capt. Brian Freeman was on his way home for a two-week Christmas leave when his path crossed with two U.S. senators on a military airfield in Baghdad.
The chance meeting with Sens. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) brought to the surface troubling thoughts that were roiling the 31-year-old Army reservist from Temecula.
He spoke in unusually blunt terms for a soldier.
“Senator, it’s nuts over here,” Dodd later quoted Freeman in a speech on the Senate floor. “Soldiers are being asked to do work we’re not trained to do. I’m doing work that the State Department people are far more prepared to do in fostering democracy, but they’re not allowed to come off the bases because it’s too dangerous here. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Freeman was a reluctant soldier. He had left the military service to raise a family, start a career and perhaps pursue politics. When called, his sense of duty guided him.
Though pessimistic about the U.S. mission in Iraq, he applied himself there to the service of others.
On Jan. 20, he was killed along with 24 others on one of the deadliest days for the U.S. military in two years.
After first releasing a flawed version of what happened that day, the Army has since corrected the record but so far has told Freeman’s family less about how he died at the hands of insurgent assassins than they have learned from media accounts.
Freeman was assigned to a civil affairs unit working with local government officials in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, south of Baghdad.
On his own initiative, he started a project to help Iraqi beekeepers and also was trying to get medical care for an 11-year-old boy with a heart condition.
“He was a humanitarian, really,” said his wife, Charlotte. “He took it upon himself to do more than his Army duty.”
But as the Shiite observance of Ashura approached, Freeman had to tend to the more traditional Army role of security.
On Jan. 20, he was among about a dozen soldiers deployed to the heavily guarded headquarters of the provincial governor to go over security.
The Army initially reported that Freeman and four other soldiers were killed when the meeting area came under attack by mortars and small-arms fire.
“We were told Brian was killed at the facility,” said his father, Randy, of Bakersfield. “We were thinking that was good. It was quick and it was over and he didn’t suffer.”
But local Iraqi officials were telling a different story of abduction and execution.
Five days later, the Army confirmed those reports.
At a briefing in Baghdad, Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl said four of the soldiers had been abducted by insurgents who got into the compound by stealth. They wore U.S. uniforms, carried U.S. weapons and drove a convoy of American SUVs right through an Iraqi army checkpoint.
One soldier was killed there and several were wounded. Four, including Freeman, were taken captive and driven away.
Iraqi police chased down the vehicles 25 miles to the east. All four soldiers had been shot in the head. Two were handcuffed together in an SUV. Another was dead on the ground.
Randy Freeman said the Army told him that his son, the fourth soldier, was found alive but died en route to a hospital.
“The emotions go from, ‘It was quick’ to, ‘How did he suffer in that last hour and a half?’ ” he said.
Freeman’s mother, Kathleen Snyder, who is remarried and lives in Utah, said she has learned little.
“The only thing we have been told is the first thing when the chaplains came,” she said. “Everything else is what we read in the paper.”
Freeman’s survivors are not criticizing the Army for the misinformation. Yet they say they still suffer from not knowing the whole story. The Army has told them that they will be given a report after the investigation is complete.
Born in Bakersfield, Freeman moved with his mother to San Diego after his parents divorced.
He graduated from Torrey Pines High School and had completed two years at Washington State University when an internship with former Rep. Michael Huffington (R-Santa Barbara) led to a West Point appointment. He graduated in 1999 and began his service as a tank officer at Ft. Knox, Ky.
While visiting his mother, who had moved to Utah, he followed the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and took an avid interest in the bobsled event.
He soon was a member of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program as both a bobsled brakeman and driver of the skeleton, a one-person sled ridden head-first and steered by body weight.
He represented the Army at national events and was considered an Olympic hopeful. But Snyder said her son realized that he wasn’t competitive at that level.
His forte seemed to be helping others.
“He would always seem to volunteer to ride as a brakeman with a new driver,” said Steve Peters, eastern programs and events manager for the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation. “They tend to crash a lot.”
Without an experienced brakeman, novice drivers can’t develop.
“Brian was one of those people who would ride with anybody,” Peters said. “Many developed into world-class athletes.”
But when his enlistment ended in 2004, Freeman had found a new passion.
While training for the bobsled in San Diego, Freeman was reintroduced by a friend to a former classmate at Torrey Pines High.
“It was love at first sight,” Charlotte Freeman said.
They were married May 1, 2004, and Freeman embraced civilian life.
He became an advance planner for KB Homes, working with local officials and interest groups to prepare for new developments.
“He’s always been interested in politics,” his wife said. “I think he was pushing his way in that direction.”
The Freemans had a son, Gunner, now 2, and Charlotte was pregnant with their daughter, Ingrid, now 1, when he was recalled to active duty.
Freeman obtained a postponement to be home for his daughter’s birth but decided not to contest his obligation.
Freeman reported to the 412th Civil Affairs Battalion in Whitehall, Ohio, and was dispatched to Iraq in April.
In Iraq, Freeman met Ali, the 11-year-old son of an Iraqi policeman, who had a terminal heart condition and needed surgery.
Freeman found Rotary Gift of Life, a New York-based organization that provides heart surgery for needy children, which flew Ali to New York for surgery.
Ali’s successful surgery was exactly one month after Freeman was killed.
Charlotte Freeman went to New York for the operation and plans to stay active in the organization as a spokeswoman.