By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Monica went online and researched the infantry, but she still wanted more information. She visited a local recruiting battalion.
"My mistake was bringing Andrew with me," she says. "In my head, I replay it over and over again—seeing him sitting at the other desk, talking to the recruiter. I just thought he was bullshitting, shooting the breeze..."
Andrew, then a junior with high grades, had recently found out that his girlfriend, Veronica, was pregnant. Monica offered to help him find work or let the teenage couple live with her, but he said it was his responsibility and his alone. "I don't want you to save me," he told her. He and Veronica moved in with Veronica's parents and prepared to become parents themselves. Andrew worked odd jobs, detailing cars and hustling at the basketball courts for extra cash.
By 2002, when Freddy was preparing to deploy to Iraq, Andrew and Veronica were caring for their second child. He'd dropped out of high school, earned his GED and found himself struggling even more to pay bills and provide for the kids. Freddy, whom he'd always admired, had decided the military was a good option, so why not follow suit? He told his sister that he had to join the Army to take care of his family.
"I was devastated," Monica says. "I didn't know what I was going to do without them, and I knew that if something happened to them there was nothing I could do."
Freddy tried to assuage herfears in a letter from Iraq, explaining the benefits of the Army and why he and his brother had "made the best choices."
Andrew was stationed at Fort Irwin, California. He deployed to Kuwait with the 699th Maintenance Company in 2003. As a mechanic, he outfitted Humvees and trucks for combat in Iraq. He told his family of making dangerous forays into insurgent territory, encountering firefights and risking IED explosions to deliver supplies or repair tanks and four-by-fours damaged by roadside bombs. Meanwhile, Freddy, a weapons specialist who deployed to Iraq in 2004 with Fort Hood's 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, cleared houses and apprehended rebels wearing sneakers and wielding homemade bombs and rocket launchers. The brothers asked after each other through the Army grapevine, carrying letters to pass to soldiers in the other's unit and trying to arrange meetings if they were passing through the same area. On several trips into Baghdad and Mosul, Andrew looked for his older brother but couldn't find him. They hadn't seen each other in nearly a year.
On Halloween 2004, Andrew was home in Lubbock on leave when his brother called from Iraq. Freddy was supposed to be home too, but the Army had canceled his leave. He stayed on the phone with Monica for longer than usual. "Thank you for taking care of me, watching over Nickie [his wife]. And remember, I'll always be with you," he told her. Then he recited the Bible verse from Isaiah that the three of them had made their mantra. "Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles..."
When they hung up, Monica started to cry. Andrew told her not to, that it only made it harder for Freddy. A few days later, on November 2, she got a letter from Freddy saying his unit was going to Fallujah. The full-scale invasion would be the joint U.S.-Iraqi forces' bloodiest fight since the war began, a determined effort to root out the rebel followers of al-Qaeda kingpin Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Already, Operation Phantom Fury was lifting off, the focus of global headlines and continuous cable news updates. Columns of tanks and Humvees snaked into the city's outskirts bearing more than 10,000 soldiers and Marines who braced for some of the most brutal combat since Vietnam.
Monica watched the news and prayed; Andrew returned to Kuwait. On November 13, Freddy and his unit were five days into their siege of Fallujah, taking fire from buildings, homes and mosques, detaining insurgents and clearing weapons caches. As he and his eight-man squad worked their way through Shuhada, an area in the southwestern part of the city known as the Martyrs neighborhood, they came upon a suspicious-looking house. As soon as the first American ventured inside, they were besieged by a storm of bullets and grenades. Three soldiers took shrapnel and lay bleeding, and the others dragged their wounded comrades along as they tried to escape and take cover.
To protect the men, Freddy stood squarely, shouldered his M-249 automatic and fired streams of bullets into the house. He likely never saw the sniper poised in the building behind him. Bullets ripped into the back of his neck above his Kevlar vest and exited his chest. The other members of his unit—five of whom were wounded in the firefight—would later credit Freddy with saving their lives. After his death, Jose Alfredo "Freddy" Velez was awarded two Purple Hearts, a Silver Star and a Bronze Star.
Monica awoke at 3 a.m. to a call from Freddy's wife, Nickie. A friend who volunteered at Fort Hood's casualty assistance office had told her that Freddy's unit had sustained a casualty. Monica drove to her brother and sister-in-law's house on the base, and several hours later there was a knock on the door. The following hours were a blur of grief and disbelief. Then Andrew called. The Army had sent him to Baghdad to identify Freddy's body.