A month earlier, Army Specialist Jose Alfredo Velez had been in Shuhada, in the southern section of Fallujah, Iraq, laying down fire with his M-249 to keep the enemy pinned. Freddy, as everyone called him, was standing near five wounded members of his squad, squeezing the trigger of his automatic rifle as bullets whizzed past his head. It was November 13, 2004, and U.S. troops were five days into one of the bloodiest battles of the war in Iraq. Freddy, a weapons specialist, was the newest member of 3rd Squad, an eight-man unit within the 2nd Battalion of the Army’s 1st Cavalry Regiment. “I needed an auto-rifleman,” says the squad’s leader, Staff Sergeant Carlos Santillana. “I knew Freddy Velez and I asked for him specifically, because that’s the kind of person you want in battle—good-humored, easy to get along with, fuckin’ crazy enough for this kind of war, but also a guy who knows his job and isn’t gonna leave you hanging.”

Third Squad was slightly ahead of schedule on the 13th. The soldiers in it had taken fire from inside a mosque, cleared a house of Kalashnikovs and grenades, and detained a small group of insurgents. “I cannot begin to count how much ammo we used in Fallujah,” Santillana says. “We had freakin’ arthritis from pulling the trigger so much.”

Freddy was supposed to be on leave during the battle for Fallujah, but the Army needed all the people it could get. In early October, he’d sent an e-mail to his family. “I’m sure you heard the bad news,” the e-mail read. “I won’t be coming home for R&R.” Freddy knew that his mission would be a trip into hell. He’d tried to suppress his fear for the benefit of his wife, Nickie, but his e-mail belied the “What, me worry?” attitude that had endeared him to so many people in his 23 years. “I never had to kill a man before,” he wrote. “I ask now more than ever for your prayers of strength and protection. . . . I also ask that you comfort Nickie—she’s a little shook up about the whole thing. Give my brother a hug and a kiss for me [and] tell him that I love him. . . . Dad, thank you for everything you’ve done and taught me, and I hope to be as strong a man as you.”

A month after sending that e-mail, Freddy found himself in Fallujah, trying to stay alive. His squad had volunteered to clear a suspicious-looking house, which turned out to be an enemy stronghold packed with upwards of 50 men. Almost immediately after entering the building, the point man, Sergeant Abdelwahab (Abe), had taken shrapnel from a grenade in his leg; reacting quickly he pushed his backup man, Specialist Howard, outside. After the explosions had died down, Howard dragged Abe to the street, in the process taking a bullet in his shoulder blade. Meanwhile, the rest of the squad was trapped in the house’s courtyard. “We were totally freakin’ outnumbered,” Santillana says. “We couldn’t have been in there for more than a few minutes, but it felt like fuckin’ hours.”