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'Army Times' Column: Losing a Friend in Iraq

Reporter Gina Cavallaro and Spc. Martinez on patrol in Ramadi on March 16, 2005. Army Times photo by Rick Kozak hide caption

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Army Times photo by Rick Kozak

Reprinted by permission of Army Times.

This is a column I hoped I would never have to write. It's about the death of a soldier who — like so many I've met on my four trips to ride along with and write about soldiers in Iraq — became a quick and loyal friend during the short time I knew him.

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I've known people who have been killed here. And I've certainly seen death in my personal life. But I had not had the misfortune of having to witness a mortally wounded soldier try to hang on to life.

I grieve for this fallen soldier, as I know his buddies do. And now I understand what it has been like for thousands of others who have seen tragedy here in Iraq.

His name was Spc. Francisco Martinez. He was 20 years old and a forward observer in 2nd Battalion, 17th Field Artillery. But when I met him, he was temporarily attached to a scout platoon in Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, a common practice among maneuver units.

The scout platoon conducts raids and dismounted civil affairs and reconnaissance patrols through dangerous neighborhoods. Martinez told me he really liked doing that job because it meant going outside the wire where the action is, instead of sitting guard on a gate somewhere.

I went on my first foot patrol with that platoon March 16, and Martinez became my shadow, a little brother who watched out for me in the two or three hours we walked through the Tammim area of Ramadi. He had that spunky, gregarious kind of personality that entertained the other soldiers; a broad, ready smile of gleaming white teeth and a "hey, look at me, I'm a warrior and I love it" attitude.

I never talked with the other soldiers about him, but I could tell he was well-liked. I liked him a lot, too. He was one of those very young, super capable guys, and his confidence made me feel safe.

We talked about Puerto Rico, where his family comes from and where I grew up. Occasionally our conversations lapsed into Spanish, and we laughed about things unique to the island territory, like the fiery political scene and the fervor with which Puerto Ricans celebrate Christmas.

He seemed as if he was having a good time being a soldier on duty in Iraq. Maybe the fact that he came from another culture helped him accept the Iraqis more easily.

Like everyone else, Martinez was sure of himself on the dismounted patrol, shielded by his body armor and carrying a powerful rifle to fend off trouble.

But on March 20 that wasn't good enough.

It was my last day in Ramadi, and I opted to go on one last patrol with Alpha Company. As with the first one, Martinez was by my side the whole time, just walking along with me, asking me personal questions and what it was like to work for Army Times.

As Martinez and I walked together, we chatted about different things and goofed around with some of the Iraqi kids who were following us. It was a routine patrol, like dozens of others they had already done. Martinez never let his guard down, and we were surrounded by his fellow soldiers, field artillery and infantry guys on foot and in Humvees.

Part of the reason for the patrol was to find a sniper who had already killed three soldiers and wounded a few more. The soldiers hadn't had a lead on the sniper in weeks. They checked the location where they hoped to find the guy, but he wasn't there.

But instead of heading back to post, the soldiers decided to do a reconnaissance through the neighborhood, a historically bad area called Five Kilo just outside their post on the west end of Ramadi.

Around 3 p.m., that routine patrol turned dark with a single shot.

We were about 45 minutes into the patrol and stopped in front of a house where the company commander was inside talking with some locals.

Standing about six feet in front of Martinez, I had just taken a picture when I heard a shot ring out. It was close.

I turned around and there was my buddy lying flat on his back in the street right in front of me, his legs outstretched and his arms by his sides. Horrified and completely incredulous, I screamed his name out, "Martinez!" The whole world seemed to have been upended.

I didn't believe what I was seeing.

"No! No!" I heard myself saying, "Not Martinez." I was told to take cover, but I couldn't figure out how, and I didn't want to take my eyes off my friend.

He was surrounded immediately by soldiers who took his vest off and tried to move him toward the closest Humvee. I felt panicked and began hyperventilating, watching his uniform turn crimson and a pool of his blood spilling onto the dusty pavement.

I saw the commander running with a group of soldiers toward the area where a car carrying the likely shooter was seen pulling away when someone yelled for me to get into the Humvee. Relieved to have been given an order I could follow, I jumped in behind the driver. In the other seat was Pfc. Michael Johnson, helping to get Martinez in, bunching up his limp legs against the back of the seat.

Martinez was soaked in blood, and some other soldiers were still struggling to get his shirt off. I reached over and helped pull it off, only vaguely aware that we were already speeding toward the base.

Somehow, even with the vest on, Martinez had been hit on the right side of his back.

Smashed into the small space behind the front passenger seat, Johnson held Martinez's body with all the strength he could muster and applied a bandage to the wound while I worked to get Martinez's drenched T-shirt up over his head and off his arms.

Johnson yelled for me to look and make sure he had the bandage on the wound. He did, and a stream of blood coursed down Martinez's back as I handed Johnson a replacement bandage.

Slumped in a fetal position in the seat, Martinez said he couldn't feel his legs. I took his right hand in mine and told him, in Spanish, to squeeze it,

To look at me, "mirame." To not fall asleep on me, "no te me duermas." To keep breathing, "respira, mi amor."

Martinez kept responding, but said he was having trouble breathing. Johnson also pleaded repeatedly with him to keep breathing, as he continued to apply pressure to the wound.

I stroked Martinez's jet-black hair and held his chin up so he could get a better air passage. His skin was damp with perspiration, and I ached to do more for him.

The trip to the aid station seemed to take forever, but it probably took only about seven minutes and Martinez started to fade by the time we got there.

I didn't want to see him die. I just didn't want to see him die.

He was so brave and strong about it, and I could tell he didn't want to give up. I stared, paralyzed, as medics carried Martinez to the aid station. Blood poured from his body through the mesh stretcher, creating a dark red trail in the dust. I watched the doors close behind them.

Johnson and I hugged and trembled together for a while. Then we all walked around in circles, waiting for news of Martinez's fate. I wondered what it felt like for all the soldiers having me around, an outsider with my arms and hands painted in their buddy's blood. Martinez, the medical team told me, was probably going to make it. I resolved then and there to visit him at Walter Reed and connect with his family.

I learned later that soldiers had caught up with that fleeing car, killed the driver when he refused to stop, and detained two others who had gunpowder residue on their hands. But by that night, they still hadn't determined whether one of those men was the one who shot Martinez.

I walked away after the medical evacuation helicopter took off, stunned and thirsty. It wasn't the exclamation point I wanted at the end of my trip here.

An hour later, I learned Martinez had died.

I cried like a baby.