I heard about the death of Sergeant Joe Velez—the papers said his name was Jose, but he called himself Joe with me—a week ago. Word came via one of his fellow soldiers, who telephoned from Iraq. The news struck me with surprising force. I’d only known Velez slightly; I’d met him just two days before he shipped out from his home in the Bronx. We’d spoken a few times, but because of the circumstances—Velez, we both knew, was headed into a kill zone—the conversations grew unusually candid, as if he were mentioning thoughts as they came to him. One thing he was trying to process was whether he should propose to his girlfriend. By happenstance, I was his sounding board. He’d explained the situation by phone the day before he departed. Today, he told me, was his girlfriend’s birthday. He planned to take her to dinner. Maybe, he thought, he should propose then. On the phone, though, he wasn’t entirely sure. Velez was only recently divorced—that was one reason he’d signed up for the military—when out of the blue he met this girl five weeks ago. Plus, he was leaving for a year. Still, he told me, “She’s amazing.” As we talked, he thought more about getting married. “I should propose tonight,” Velez said to me, encouraged. “I think I should.”
On learning of Velez’s death in Iraq, I realized I didn’t know how the story ended, which somehow made his death more unsettling.
I’d first met Velez, a tractor-trailer driver from the Bronx, at Fort Totten, a breathtaking stretch of parkland on the Queens side of the East River. I’d asked to meet reservists, part-time soldiers, heading to fight in Iraq. I wanted to know what it was like to hear the news about Iraq and then head into that chaos. Reservists—National Guard, Marine Reserve, and, like Velez, Army Reserve—mostly trained one weekend a month, plus a couple of weeks a year, a pretty good deal for the benefits, which include educational aid, retirement funds, and extra pay. Before the Iraq war, few military experts considered reservists combat-ready. The caricature, as one National Guard colonel explained to me, was “weekend warrior playing cards, drinking beer.” In the Iraq war, however, President Bush has relied heavily on reservists, who at one point made up 40 percent of America’s troops on the ground.
The 77th command of the Army Reserves, Velez’s unit, had convened for me Velez and three other soldiers. They wore new blousy uniforms that seemed too big and too clean. They were part of a unit that would shepherd convoys of fuel trucks from one base to another. On one hand, Velez welcomed that news. He knew how to handle a truck. On the other hand, being anywhere near a fuel truck made him a prime target. Everyone knew about the buried bombs, so powerful they melt steel truck carriages.
Velez’s captain attended the meeting, as did the company’s senior sergeant. They weren’t there as minders, but the effect was similar. The four soldiers, two women and two men, clutched their hands tightly in front of them and kept conversation to a narrow range. There was talk of the importance of the mission, the pleasures of camaraderie, topics that seemed to have little to do with risking their lives. And they talked about packing the right socks, and stocking their iPods with music, and Iraq’s spiders. “I hate spiders,” said one soldier.
Velez, a beefy 35-year-old, was the oldest soldier there. Perhaps because of that, or because it’s only possible to talk of war as summer camp—socks! iPods!—for so long, Velez eventually shifted the conversation. He said he worried about getting fired on. “Driving down the road, trying to help the Iraqis out and they’re against us. It doesn’t make sense. It scares me to know that there’s people out there who want to hurt us,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about it, and I can’t sleep now.” I could hear emotion bubbling up in him, and I wanted to hear more. That’s what I’d come for. But just then the commanders said the soldiers had to get back to work.
And so, the following day, which was the day before he was to ship out, I phoned Velez. He said that he’d been pricing body armor. His mother even offered to buy it for him. The company sergeant, though, didn’t believe one soldier should have body armor if everyone didn’t. Plus, Velez figured, it’s really expensive, more than $6,000 in some cases. In any case, Velez told me he wasn’t focused on dying. “Then you’re dead,” he said, which I took to mean that if you’re dead, you have nothing more to worry about. Lately, though, Velez did worry about being injured.