The Fallen: Brothers in Arms

Andrew Velez idolized his older brother, Freddy. So when Freddy joined the Army and went to fight in the Middle East, Andrew followed. Now both brothers are dead—but only one of them is being called a hero.

Three A.M., a few nights before Christmas, 2004. The war in Iraq is approaching its second anniversary, and the conflict in Afghanistan is into year four. A soldier sits in a small suburban house. He is a baby-faced 21-year-old but has a look of exhaustion that can’t be concealed. He should feel safe here. But the young man has lost his ability to reason. He closes his eyes as if to tune out the chatter from the other people in the room, and when he opens them, he snaps. “The hajjis are coming!“ he screams. “The hajjis are coming!“

To those around him it’s clear that Army Specialist Andrew Velez has been sucked into some dark corner of his mind. “They’re coming!“ he repeats. “They’re coming!“ Andrew stands up and runs around the house, turning off all the lights. A young woman is standing nearby, and Andrew ushers her into a bedroom, hollering at her to duck for cover. He drops to the floor and slides across the room on his stomach. At some point he produces a rifle, albeit an imaginary one, and squeezes the invisible trigger. “I’m not gonna die!“ he shouts. “I’m not gonna die!“ Then Andrew runs for the back door. The woman chases him. When she steps outside, Andrew pulls her to the ground to protect her from enemy fire. “I’m not gonna die!“ he screams. “I’m coming home to see my babies!“

But Andrew Velez is home. He’s at his in-laws’ house in Lubbock, Texas. There are no hajjis here, no gunshots or shelling, and his babies sleep soundly nearby. The young woman is his wife and the mother of his children. Her name is Veronica, and she patiently explains as much to Andrew, even as he continues to scream and shoot at an imaginary enemy. Someone calls the police. Veronica phones her father-in-law, Roy Velez, who arrives 15 minutes later, gets out of his truck, and hugs his son. Roy, an ex-cop who’s built like a bear, has detained his share of criminals, but he doesn’t have the strength to keep Andrew still, so he lets him flail. The police show up, then leave after Andrew calms down.

Andrew has an older sister, Monica, who is now a psychology student and has worked with assault victims. In the days after Andrew’s episode, Monica asks her brother to try to remember everything he can about the incident. She suspects post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Besides afflicting those who have experienced combat—or other violence, like assaults or accidents—PTSD often affects people who have seen dead bodies. So Monica prods Andrew, and Andrew cooperates as best he can. “I remember being on the ground and looking up and seeing the police standing over me,“ he tells her. She reminds him that the police didn’t show up until the end of his fit of paranoia. She talks to him about PTSD triggers and asks him to think about what might have prompted his behavior. There is an image, he tells her—something he just can’t shake. “I remember closing my eyes,“ he finally says. “I remember closing my eyes and seeing Freddy.“

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.“

Howard lay wounded in front of the house, trying to hold off enemy fire, while Abe lay bleeding on the ground. By now most of the squad had exited the courtyard and was taking fire from the other side of the street, as well as from the house. According to Santillana, Freddy Velez “just started rockin’ the building. I yelled to him to keep spraying the house.“ Another member, Specialist Alicea, had been hit in the hip by shrapnel, and he limped his way over to Velez and collapsed next to him for protection. Third Squad was in the middle of a baited ambush, with three of its eight men down. Santillana ran to prep a grenade, intending to do away with the sniper across the street. “But I received fire from the original house, so I turned around, got down to the ground, and started shooting,“ he says. “I turned to yell something to my squad. But when I looked across the street, I saw that all of my men except for our medic were laid out, bleeding and maybe even dying. It was one of the lowest points of my life.“

Freddy never saw it coming. The shots were fired from a second-floor window behind him, entering the two-inch section of his neck that wasn’t protected by his helmet or Kevlar vest. Traveling on a downward trajectory, the bullets tore through his throat and emerged just above the V in his sternum. A Bradley arrived moments later and rushed the squad to a medical tent. All but two of the men were wounded. Doctors followed protocol and tried to revive Freddy, but he was already dead. “He did his job selflessly and saved his brothers by laying down fire,“ Santillana says. “Nothing can explain how much the surviving members of our squad owe Freddy. We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him.“ Jose Alfredo “Freddy“ Velez was posthumously promoted to corporal and awarded a Bronze Star, a Silver Star, and two Purple Hearts.

Freddy and Andrew were born in 1981 and 1983. Freddy was distinctive-looking, with glasses, a round face, and a perpetual smile. Andrew, with his deep-set eyes and good looks, was scrappier than his big brother both in body and in spirit. Side by side they would go, tearing up the neighborhood and the park, so connected that they finished each other’s sentences. Freddy was Dude. Andrew was Little Dude. But Andrew was always worried about Freddy. “He tried to play the role of the older one,“ Roy says. “When Andrew was a kid, I called him the little big brother.“

One day in the early nineties, Roy was working around the house when Andrew burst through the door, sobbing. Some kids in the park had been throwing rocks at him and Freddy, Andrew explained, and he’d lost his temper and punched one of the bullies. When Andrew realized he’d made the kid bleed, he immediately fled the scene. “I asked Andrew if he was hurt,“ Roy says, “and he told me that he was fine.“

“If you’re not hurt,“ Roy asked, “then why are you crying?“

“Because I left Freddy in the park,“ Andrew wailed. “Dad, we have to go back and get Freddy.“

A broken home was part of the brothers’ bond. Roy and their mother, Mary, had divorced in 1985, when Andrew was about 18 months old and Freddy and Monica were around 3 and 7. Roy wanted custody of his children, and he says that was okay by Mary. “She dropped the kids at a convenience store one afternoon,“ Roy recalls. “She called me from a pay phone and said that the kids could live with me.“ (Mary could not be reached for comment.) Roy was on the police force in a town near Lubbock, and his schedule kept him out of the house for long stretches. That meant that Monica became the de facto mother until 1989, when Roy married his second wife, Carmen.

The Velez household was classic West Texas Latino: family-oriented and religious. In high school, Freddy met Nickie, his wife-to-be. Andrew competed with her for Freddy’s affection, but romance and hormones trumped brotherhood. His family could see the heartache in Andrew’s eyes, but then he too discovered girls. He met one named Veronica, and became a father—to a daughter, Jasmine—sooner than he expected. He obtained his GED so he could get a job and provide for his family. Then came another baby, Jordan. At 18, Andrew and Veronica were two kids raising two children of their own. According to Monica, Veronica had doubts about motherhood. Years later, the family is careful not to denigrate Andrew’s wife (“We used to eat off the same plate,“ Roy says). But Monica says that whenever Andrew and Veronica had problems, Andrew turned to his sister and brother for comfort.

Freddy joined the Army in 2000. He’d been an honor student and had aspirations of becoming a doctor; the military could help him pay for school. Before his last deployment, he married Nickie. Andrew spoke at the wedding, offering up a rare display of emotion, cracking a few jokes, and welcoming his sister-in-law into the family.

Andrew joined the Army in 2002 and became a mechanic, specializing in air-conditioning and heating. He was already stationed in Kuwait when Freddy was deployed to Iraq in early 2004. Andrew’s sister and father say that he was sent on several missions, sometimes in Kuwait, sometimes Iraq. While his fellow soldiers stood guard, he’d set about repairing vehicles that had broken down or been damaged by I.E.D.’s. According to Monica, Andrew wasn’t ever supposed to set foot in Iraq. Because his brother was in combat, Andrew was to stay in Kuwait on compassionate assignment, an option given soldiers to lessen the risk of families’ losing more than one child in battle. But the Army needed men, and Andrew wasn’t going to serve his country by sitting around some camp. He’d call and e-mail Monica regularly, telling her about the violence and the I.E.D.’s and the local kids who would eat from soldiers’ hands and then punch them. Monica says that on several occasions Andrew tried to track Freddy down. The brothers hadn’t seen each other in almost a year—the longest they’d ever been apart. Andrew, Monica says, looked for Freddy in April, May, and July of 2004, while in Baghdad and Mosul. But he was never able to find him.

Monica picked up the phone on November 14, 2004, to the sound of Andrew’s screaming, a chain of sobbing, desperate howls broken up by the awkward delays in an overseas call from Kuwait. “Freddy’s gone,“ Andrew said. “I have to go get Freddy.“ The Army sent Andrew to Baghdad to identify Freddy’s body, its torso blown wide open. Days later, Andrew escorted Freddy to Lubbock by way of Germany. In between flights he called Monica, hysterical about the way his brother’s corpse was being handled, like a piece of luggage. At Lubbock International, Andrew approached his father. “Daddy,“ he said, “this wouldn’t have happened to Freddy if I’d been there.“

After Freddy’s funeral, Andrew stayed in Lubbock through the holidays. About four weeks later, Andrew closed his eyes, saw an image of his brother, and went on his hallucinatory tear. Roy says that after the incident he asked an Army officer to assess Andrew’s condition. “The Army man met with Andrew for a while,“ Roy says. “And afterwards he told me, ‘Sir, your son is a fine young soldier. What he’s going through is perfectly normal. He’ll be okay.’“ According to Roy, the officer also promised to recommend to the appropriate authorities at Fort Irwin, the military base in California’s Mojave Desert where Andrew was to be stationed next, that he be evaluated professionally.

The police report from Andrew’s late-night incident made its way to Fort Irwin in January 2005. Andrew’s treatment, Monica says, involved regular meetings with the base’s chaplain for two or three weeks. “Andrew could be stubborn, and getting him to open up was never easy. Basically, he just sat there until the chaplain decided to let him go,“ she adds. If that’s the case, the chaplain was simply following protocol: “While the Army offers psychiatric care,“ says Colonel Elspeth Ritchie, a psychiatry consultant for the Army Surgeon General’s office, “treatment and evaluation are not mandated. In fact, a lot of soldiers and families might find mandatory treatment humiliating.“ And voluntary psychiatric treatment, especially among younger soldiers, carries a stigma. One D.C.-based former JAG officer who now practices law privately describes an elective psych evaluation as the “kiss of death“ in the Army. “It’s not exactly a career-enhancing move,“ he says. So Andrew Velez, despite the loss of his brother and the sight of his war-torn corpse, kept his own counsel and managed his grief in private.

2005 passed slowly. While at Fort Irwin, Andrew and Veronica had their third child, Jacob—but a child can’t mend a relationship. Andrew was a great cardplayer, “a shit-talker who’d double down even if his last quarter was on the table,“ says his good friend Specialist Roberto Cervantes. “He was good at hiding his problems. I never really saw anything wrong with his marriage at Fort Irwin. There were a handful of times when he broke down and cried about Freddy—I’d say about eight or nine times during all of 2005. But nothing about it seemed unusual for a guy who’d lost his brother.“ Sergeant Joe Davis, who was Andrew’s roommate in Kuwait before being stationed with him at Fort Irwin, also describes him as stoical and undemonstrative. “I knew Andrew as well as I think anyone could know him,“ he says. “But it was tough to get a really good read on exactly how he was feeling. We barbecued at his place all the time, and he never mentioned problems with Veronica.“

In the summer of 2005, word came down that Davis and Cervantes would be deployed to Afghanistan. Because Andrew was the sole surviving male of his generation in his family, the Army hadn’t slated him for deployment. But when he heard that his buddies were on the list, Andrew requested to go with them. “He said, ‘Fuck that—I’m going too,’“ Cervantes says. “He was excited about it. Shit, we were all excited about it.“ A few weeks later, Andrew’s father and stepmother visited Fort Irwin, and Andrew took Roy on a tour of the base. “Dad, I’m going back to war,“ Andrew said. “And don’t you try to stop me. Don’t worry. They can’t kill me.“ Before leaving for Afghanistan, Andrew brought Veronica and the kids back to Lubbock, where they would live during his deployment. He told his stepmother that his marriage wouldn’t survive that tour of duty.

Andrew arrived at Camp Sharona, Afghanistan, in March 2006. He went on weeklong trips to repair broken-down vehicles. He called Monica when he could and cried to her about the tension and the violence. On one occasion, while Andrew and his crew were working in the middle of the night, a car sped headlong toward them. Andrew fired a warning shot. Then he shot into the car’s radiator. But the driver punched the gas and kept charging. Andrew opened fire and kept shooting until the vehicle slowed and then jerked to a halt. He told Roy about the incident. “When y’all comb your hair and go to sleep,“ he said, “you don’t know what it is to be in hell. But I found out.“

Andrew called Veronica as often as possible, but according to his family, their marriage was in an irreversible downward spiral. (Veronica did not return calls for this article, and her family did not respond to two separate requests—by letter and phone—for an interview.)

On the morning of July 25, a soldier at Camp Sharona walked into an office on the base and found the body of Andrew Velez. An investigation into Andrew’s death was conducted, but the results were given only to Veronica; Monica has been trying to get the report from the Army for more than a year. However, Roy has a death summary on official Army letterhead. It doesn’t specify whether Andrew was found slumped over a desk or lying face up on the floor. It contains only the basics. “Soldier was found in an office building in PTs [physical training clothes] with a GSW [gunshot wound] to the head from an M-249,“ it reads. “The soldier apparently shot himself through the mouth.“ The summary also notes that a nearby phone was off the hook.

The Velez family doesn’t know whether Andrew pulled the trigger while he had Veronica on the line; if they ever receive the report, such specifics will likely be redacted. Veronica has not talked to the Velez family since shortly after Andrew’s funeral.

On a cold, sunny day in January, Roy Velez pulls his white Ford pickup up to the Lubbock Area Veterans Memorial, a semi-circular black granite wall that recognizes those killed in action from World War I to the present. To earn a spot on the wall, officials say, soldiers “must give the supreme sacrifice by dying at the hands of the enemy.“ Over a roaring wind, Roy recounts, not for the first time, the story of his elder son: In a bloody battle in Fallujah, Iraq, the enemy shot Freddy from behind, earning him a spot on the memorial that Roy now contemplates. One year and eight months later, in Afghanistan, Andrew Velez surrendered to some uncontrollable enemy, put an M-249 in his mouth, and squeezed the trigger.

Andrew’s name hasn’t been etched in black granite, but it has gained a spot on a list that’s growing at an alarming rate. A recent Defense Department study revealed that the suicide rate in the Army is the highest it’s been in 26 years. In 2001, Army suicides totaled about 50; in 2006, 102 soldiers killed themselves. Since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, reported yearly suicide attempts by soldiers have jumped approximately sixfold—in 2007 there were 2,100. “The Army takes these numbers very seriously,“ Army Surgeon General spokesperson Ritchie says. “And we’re trying to tackle the problem head-on.“ Ritchie explains that the Army offers a variety of psychiatric help, from grief counselors to Combat Stress Control Teams, which visit soldiers in the field. But those efforts are useful only if soldiers who—like Andrew—may be suffering from PTSD or other problems are willing to ask for assistance, and risk appearing weak or unworthy of advancement.

Over the course of 20 months, Andrew Velez lost the brother he worshipped. He went to war in Afghanistan, and from halfway across the world he saw his wife slipping away and his family disintegrating. Could his death have been prevented if he’d swallowed his pride and asked for counseling? Would he have been less likely to pull the trigger if the Army hadn’t sent him to a war zone? Could mandatory therapy have saved him? The answer to all these questions is, of course, a resounding maybe.

Andrew and Freddy are buried side by side at Resthaven Memorial Park, a windswept spread of yellow grass set back from a mundane boulevard in Lubbock. There on a Tuesday at noon, Roy Velez stands next to Freddy’s headstone, a shiny granite square with gray engraving—a testament to the brave soldier and warm young man that Freddy was. WARRIOR OF GOD. HUSBAND, SON AND BROTHER, it reads. It also quotes a passage from Romans 8:31 that Freddy was known to invoke: IF GOD IS FOR US, WHO CAN BE AGAINST US? Veronica is Andrew’s next of kin and likely retains exclusive authority to choose a marker for his grave, which the Velez family says they’ve offered to purchase. Representatives of the cemetery have declined the family’s offer, saying that only the possessor of the certificate of interment rights can do this. They will not confirm or deny whether Veronica is that possessor. Whatever the truth, for unknown reasons a U.S. serviceman and father of three has no public memorial. There is no fancy chunk of granite for Andrew Velez—just a patch of dry dirt where his headstone should be.

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