Private Baines' Journey: Out of Newark, into Iraq

Private Joe Baines joined the Army to escape a rough neighborhood. He dreamed of college and of getting his family out of Newark, N.J. But he didn't make it back from Iraq.

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In Iraq, the U.S. military reports an American soldier was killed today near Baghdad coming under small-arms fire. So far, 37 troops have died in Iraq this month. Army Private Joe Baines was killed in Iraq in December. Baines had been there two and a half months when his Humvee hit a roadside bomb in Taji, north of Baghdad. He was 19.

Julie Walker visited with his family and has this remembrance.

Unidentified Woman: (Unintelligible).

JULIE WALKER: Joe Baines' family moved into a new apartment in Newark, New Jersey a few weeks ago. They've quickly made it a shrine to him. There are lighted glass display cases that show off not only his medals, but everyday items that seem to mean just as much.

Ms. SYBIL BENSON (Godsister): His vest. His pajamas. His socks.

WALKER: Sybil Benson, his godsister, gives me a tour.

Ms. BENSON: His hat. His uniform. Those, basically trophies.

WALKER: Tell me about this one.

Ms. BENSON: Which one, this? What...

Ms. YOLANDA TORRES (Mother): Purple Heart.

Ms. BENSON: His Purple Heart.

WALKER: His mother, Yolanda Torres, can't resist pointing out the Purple Heart that Baines was awarded after his death. She says her son didn't have an easy life growing up on the crime-ridden streets of Newark, but was the type of person who always put others first.

Ms. TORRES: He could had a dollar and he would share that dollar with 20 people that was in house, if he had to. He was just - he thought about everybody else before he did his self. And this is the reason, one of the reasons, that he joined the Army because he wanted us out of Newark.

WALKER: Baines first got out of Newark at the age of 14. He was sent away to Summit Quest Academy, a program for troubled youth in Pennsylvania. He thrived there. His sister, Carol Baines, says he wrote and performed songs, played sports, and became a practicing Muslim.

Ms. CAROL BAINES (Sister): He was always smart. Out of all my brothers, he was always smart. He was the brother that I looked up to.

WALKER: After Baines graduated at 18, he moved back home where trouble soon followed. His sister says a gang member shot him in the leg after a fight. Right after that Baines enlisted, something his family says he did to get out of Newark and away from the violence.

Ms. BAINES: He regretted joining the Army once he went to Iraq. He was scared because every time he spoke to me, that's all he said, I'm scared.

WALKER: Tears well up in Carol Baines' eyes as she wonders if she could have done more to keep Joe from enlisting.

Ms. BAINES: I just want to know what was he thinking when he was - when he was on his way to go to war, when he was in that truck. That's all I want to know. I know he was scared, I just want to know what was he saying. Like, damn, I hope my mother's all right. I love her.

WALKER: At Baines funeral, which was held the day after Christmas, his song, "Trapped in a Ghetto," played over a loud speaker. He recorded it under the name Young Jerse while stationed at Fort Hood in Texas. Some Army buddies of his have a small record label called Hostile Entertainment. They released Baines' song on the Internet shortly after he was killed in Iraq.

(Soundbite of song, "Trapped in a Ghetto")

WALKER: For NPR News, I'm Julie Walker in New York.

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