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Quest to heal Iraqi boy became a final mission

Eleven-year-old Iraqi boy to get lifesaving heart surgery due to Army reservist's intervention.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Hours before getting killed the way he feared most, Capt. Brian S. Freeman looked up and smiled when Abu Ali dropped by his office.

After nearly six months of overcoming financial and bureaucratic hurdles in a war zone, Freeman told the Iraqi man, there were promising signs that a pair of U.S. visas -- the last big step in getting Abu Ali's 11-year-old son to the United States for lifesaving heart surgery -- would be issued soon.

The Iraqi was speechless. He asked an interpreter to express his gratitude to the tall American soldier who had made saving the child's life an unofficial mission. Then he pulled out his camera, swung his arm around Freeman's broad shoulders and posed for three photographs.

Hours later, shortly before sunset Jan. 20, armed men in GMC trucks stormed into the government building in Karbala, in southern Iraq. They killed an American soldier, handcuffed Freeman and three other U.S. soldiers, hauled them into the vehicles and drove off. Freeman and the other abducted soldiers were later slain by the attackers.

Freeman, 31, a West Point graduate and Army Reservist, left his young wife and two toddlers in Temecula, Calif., last spring to deploy to Iraq.

He was unenthusiastic about the war, but once his uniform was on, friends said, Freeman embarked on his mission with the optimism and stamina that defined him.

"Most of us here understand the politics of war," said Capt. Matthew Lawton, one of Freeman's close friends in Iraq. "Brian didn't really agree with the war, I think. But he understood, going to West Point, going to the military -- that was the right thing to do."

Bleak prognoses
The local police chief pulled Freeman aside one day in late April and told him about the ailing boy.

The second of five children, Ali Abdulameer was born with a debilitating heart condition that gradually restricted his blood flow. Barring surgery, his father said, the boy's chances of making it to adulthood were slim. Physicians in Karbala and Baghdad offered bleak prognoses.

"Baghdad doctors always gave me promises, but nothing ever happened," Abu Ali said.

After hearing about the case, Freeman got online and typed the words "Iraqi kids heart surgery" into the Google search query. The name of a fellow civil affairs soldier he didn't know popped up. He sent her a note asking for help.

Staff Sgt. Marikay Satryano, an Army Reservist from Tarrytown, N.Y., had become something of an expert in cutting through red tape to get Iraqi children abroad for critical medical care. Stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Amman, Jordan, Satryano wrote back outlining how to get the process started.

"Here's the hard part: funding," she wrote. "We are penniless here. No budget, no pot of gold." As soldiers, they were barred from soliciting money directly, she explained. "But we CAN make people aware of this child, SO if you know persons that are interested in saving this child, the magic number is $8,000 USD. Yup. That'll do it."

Freeman spent the next few months collecting medical records and contacting charity organizations. His wife, Charlotte, helped out, making calls and sending e-mails.

Freeman e-mailed the chairman of Gift of Life International, a New York-based nonprofit organization that connects low-income children suffering from serious heart ailments with top-notch hospitals. Cases that originate in Iraq are among the toughest the foundation tackles because errands that are complicated anywhere have become an odyssey in Iraq.

Freeman had to get Ali Abdulameer's medical records to doctors in New York and apply for U.S. visas at the consulate in Amman. The Iraqis had to obtain new passports with enhanced security features now required for visa applicants from the Middle East. And they had to provide documentation to prove that the child was stable enough for the 13-hour flight to New York.

Pieces come together
Gradually, the pieces began coming together. Schneider Children's Hospital in New York agreed to perform the operation at a reduced fee and Gift of Life took the case.

"A child is a common denominator between all of us," said Robert Donno, Gift of Life chairman. "The person in Iraq and the person in Amman and the person in New Jersey understand what this child means to his father."

Freeman sent a flurry of e-mails each week to get status reports and answer questions. He mailed medical records, set up appointments and helped with passport and visa errands.

Before heading to California for a vacation in December, Freeman stopped by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, left his home phone number and personal e-mail and asked the embassy officials who had been tracking the case to keep him updated.

He returned to Karbala in January. Near the end of the week of Jan. 14, he checked in with Satryano. He always was positive and polite, she said, but they both worried that a problem with the visa application that might set them back several weeks, while Ali Abdulameer's condition deteriorated.

"We had been touching base all week," Satryano said. "How's it going, how's it going? You know how bugs in the summer call to each other."

'Vets for Kids'
Freeman's time in Iraq made him reexamine what he wanted to do with his life, friends said. He thought about going to graduate school after finishing his tour and talked of starting a nonprofit organization to get Iraqi children medical care abroad. "Vets for Kids," they could call it, he told a fellow soldier. His eagerness to help Ali Abdulameer, a boy he never met, was an effort to make meaningful contributions in a devastated country.

"It may have started with a program we saw on Doctors Without Borders," his wife, Charlotte, said in a telephone interview. "He was very moved by the fact that these people went to dangerous situations and helped out, and their philosophy was that's how you let people around the world know there are good people who will help. That was his vision."

On Jan. 20, Freeman went online and tried to get a new case off the ground. He had come across the medical file of a critically ill girl younger than Ali Abdulameer. Again, he set out to beat the odds.

"These are very poor and do not have a G-Series passport," Freeman wrote in an e-mail to a colleague at the military's National Iraqi Assistance Center in Baghdad, referring to passports with enhanced security features. "A trip to Baghdad might be out of their reach financially. If we get close to something happening on this, I can raise the money."

Worst fear comes true
That evening a group of English-speaking armed men wearing what looked like American military uniforms and badges drove up to the building in a convoy of at least six GMC trucks.

The men stormed into the building and detonated sound bombs and grenades. Freeman was in his office and didn't get to his weapon in time. He and three of the soldiers who reported to him were abducted at gunpoint.

It was among his biggest fears. The conventional wisdom among soldiers had it that they'd save their last bullet for themselves rather than fall into the hands the enemy alive.

"We all talked about that," said Capt. Henry Domeracki, one of Freeman's close friends in Iraq. "You know what they do -- cut off our heads, burn us."

The attackers drove into neighboring Babil province, several miles away.

"That is the hardest thing when I think about Brian," Domeracki said. "We know that he was in the car with the cuffs on. We know he was praying, asking God to look after his kids."

The gunmen abandoned five of the vehicles. Iraqi soldiers later found the bodies of two soldiers handcuffed together in the back of one of the vehicles. Freeman's body was left on the ground. All three had been fatally shot. The fourth soldier was found alive, but died en route to the hospital.

'One of the good guys'
Abu Ali was notified the following day by an interpreter who worked with the soldier. He was crushed, but understood he needed to mourn in silence.

"I could not express myself openly," said Abu Ali, who asked that his full name not be published out of concern for his safety. "If I were to express myself openly they'd know I deal with Americans and if they knew I deal with Americans they'd call me a traitor."

Freeman's group of close friends in Iraq -- "The Dirty Dozen," they called themselves -- were inconsolable.

"The first three days, all of us cried," Domeracki said. "All of us cried for three days."

The following night, Satryano was working late. She dropped by the consulate, where the woman tracking the pair's visas was still at her desk.

"Actually, that came in today," the consulate official told her, referring to the approval notices.

Elated, Satryano called her counterpart in Baghdad. Capt. Lance Carr sounded awful. She didn't understand.

"We lost a civil affairs soldier," he told her.

"I heard," she responded. "Do you know who it was?"

"Captain Freeman," he said.

"No way!" she said. "This is his kid! I just talked to him yesterday, like at 12."

He was one of the good guys, she thought to herself that night. Why did they have to kill one of the good guys?

Freeman was buried Feb. 1. He left behind two children, Gunnar, who will turn 3 next month, and Ingrid, a 1-year-old who began taking her first steps while he was home for Christmas.

Ali Abdulameer and his father are expected to arrive in New York this week. After the surgery, they hope to meet Freeman's widow.

"I want to be there for the father," Charlotte said. "I'm sure he has a need to meet me just as I feel the need to meet him."

Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson in Washington contributed to this report.