Events described in these stories were drawn from interviews conducted over an 18-month period with the story subjects or from documents provided by the story subjects, or were witnessed by the reporter.
In most cases where dialogue is used, the majority of the subjects interviewed agree on the words that were spoken. The exception is Sen. Pat Roberts' conversation with President George W. Bush on Air Force One. That section was reconstructed based on the recollections of Roberts, a former journalist. Read more about the series
Alex's mother describes the day they were told Alex died.
The facts about the life and death of Alex Funcheon are these: As a Wichita teen he was a screw-up and a jerk. He got drunk, got high, got arrested for possession, dropped out, bedded girls and bragged about it, cursed at his parents, bullied his little sister to tears, and ticked off friends so much that a roommate, one of his closest friends, told Alex one day to find some other place to live.
He told his Christian parents that he doubted the existence of God.
His father, Bob Funcheon, in despair, urged his son to join the U.S. Army. Alex enlisted.
On April 29, 2007, Sgt. Alex Funcheon, age 21, was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad.
At the funeral in Wichita, family and friends were startled to discover, from notes sent by soldiers, that Alex had become a good soldier, resourceful, courageous -- and beloved.
Six weeks after Alex died, the president of the United States came to Wichita to dedicate a new youth center and to crack jokes at a political fundraiser. The moment he heard Bush was coming, Bob said, "I knew I wanted to do something big. For Alex."
The Funcheons asked for a meeting.
On Air Force One in Wichita, on June 15 last year, they confronted an exhausted-looking President Bush with a message.
A lot of sons and daughters died, they told the president.
They asked whether their son died for nothing.
APRIL 29, 2007
Forward Operating Base, Baghdad, Iraq
Truck convoy, 1st Scout Platoon of Alpha Troop, 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalryregiment
In east Baghdad, Sgt. Gerardo Medrano and the 20 other guys from Alpha Troop's 1st Platoon could feel the heat from the morning sun as they strapped on body armor. They were laughing, joking, and a good deal scared.
They were about to drive down a road.
In the pouches attached to the front of their armored vests, they slipped in one ammunition magazine after another, 30 bullets to a magazine, seven or more magazines stuck into the chest pouches of each soldier. They cross-checked each other's pouches to make sure everybody had what they needed: bullets, night vision devices, water, medical kits.
In the turret of the convoy's lead Humvee, Alex Funcheon, a kid from Wichita and the lead gunner of this scout platoon, was checking the action on the 50-caliber machine gun and big thermal sights that were mounted in the gun turret.
He and the platoon in a few minutes would drive out the gate of Rustamiyah, the forward operating base that used to be the Iraqi military academy and was now a fortress home to battalions from the U.S. Army's 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
Lt. Jon Bland, when he walked up to his platoon, saw body armor, machine guns and short-barreled M4 carbines strewn over the hoods of the four Humvees parked single file. Soldiers were loading food coolers onto a trailer hitched at the back of one Humvee.
Bland heard Staff Sgt. Jay Martin, a political conservative, teasing a liberal-leaning Army specialist named Cooley. "The trouble with Democrats is..." Martin began. Cooley walked away. "Hey," Martin called out. "Where's Cooley?"
Bland grinned. Martin was trying to break the tension.
Bullets, armor, grenades.
If they got into a firefight, they would quickly shred any insurgent group that stood and fought. But a fight wasn't the worry. They'd been shot at so many times that no one worried about it anymore, and the insurgents never stood and fought. They hit and ran instead, and then melted back into the local population. And they planted roadside bombs.
Commanders in combat don't mess around about whom they promote, and Funcheon had become a sergeant at 21 by showing diligence and drive. At home, his parents and sister remembered him as a sweet kid who'd turned mean in ninth grade and smoked pot. But Alex had e-mailed a friend recently: "i've been clean for a long time and im not gonna go back."
Last night, when other kid soldiers rested or played video games, Funcheon lifted weights for an hour in the gym, with Bland watching. Bland had heard stories. Funcheon had a fondness for high-octane alcohol, had recently coaxed his girlfriend back at Fort Carson, Colo., to mail-smuggle him water bottles full of Absolut. But Funcheon had six-pack abs and 180 pounds of bone and muscle packed on a fat-free, 5-foot-9-inch frame. The kid could carry 40 pounds of armor all day in heat well above 100. He could fight.
They were heading out to hunt bad guys in a block-by-block strategy. Generals called it the Surge. Bland called it misery.
"It was like that old movie, 'Groundhog Day,' " he said later. "Every day on patrol, we repeat the same miserable day over and over and over. Every day, hunting bad guys, every day trying to question Iraqis, knowing the Iraqis could get assassinated later for talking to us, every day knowing that some of the Iraqi police we were bunking with were probably calling insurgents on their cell phones to rat us out every time we went out the gate."
They'd served in combat since October, six months. Funcheon was so stressed that he'd e-mailed girlfriend Jasmine Neumann that his close-cut blond hair was falling out in clumps. He'd stuck his head in front of a webcam to show her.
They'd come to defend America and free the Iraqis, but ended up appalled by the hatred and treachery they saw every day. "This place is corrupt, u have no idea," Funcheon had e-mailed his parents in December. "Can't tell the goodguys from the badguys sometimes." In November, he'd written his Mom to send him a slingshot to even things with Iraqi children who shot stones at him. When his parents suggested they send soccer balls for Iraqi children, Alex replied with obscenities. "No gifts for them unless we're getting rid of trash." He marveled at people dumping trash and sewage into Baghdad streets.
Alex and many fellow warriors were still near-children, like Brian Botello, an Iowan who at 19 was still two years short of the U.S. drinking age. But they were like brothers now, too. The boys of 1st Platoon told each other about their hopes, their pasts, their girlfriends. Funcheon cracked them up; he put on a billed Playboy cap one day, when Bland raised his camera to take a picture. In another photo, Funcheon pretended to be a smashed bug, smooshing nose and lips into the ballistic glass of the Humvee's gun turret. He told tale after tale about the drinking binges and dating rituals of Wichita.
But today Funcheon was silent and tense. He rechecked his gun. He made sure Pvt. Botello, the driver, had checked the Humvee radio and had good radio contact with the other Humvees.
They all felt stomach flutters about the drive.
The mission would be to drive from heavily fortified Rustamiyah to central Baghdad, to what the Army called a Joint Security Station, an Iraqi police station just outside the streets leading into Sadr City, Baghdad's most dangerous suburb.
They would bunk for a week with another platoon and in that time would do 10 or 12 foot patrols, two a day. The strategy was to hunt block by block.
The Iraqis with whom they bunked were supposed to patrol with them, but nearly always went looking for excuses instead of rifles when the time came. Bland, Funcheon and the others wondered whether any Iraqis wanted to salvage Iraq from murder and treachery. Some did want this, and were murdered for working with Americans. But most seemed apathetic -- or traitorous.
The trip ahead would last 20 minutes. Funcheon, the lead pair of eyes, was the guy expected to keep them alive by looking for bombs camouflaged along the roadway. Some insurgents had become so good that they would tear up a street curb, plant a bomb, then camouflage it with a fake curb painted to look real.
Bland called 1st Platoon together.
He told them their route, told them to watch the ditches.
Medrano, Funcheon and Martin climbed into the lead Humvee, along with Botello, and an Iraqi interpreter with a tongue-twisting name. 1st Platoon had just met him; he told them to call him "Murphy."
Bland rode in the passenger front seat of the second Humvee. He plugged his iPod into his sound system, and turned on Nine Inch Nails' new album, "Year Zero."
They rolled out the gate.
Bland, riding behind Funcheon's lead Humvee, could see Funcheon's head swiveling right and left as he peered over 4-inch armor plates.
Bland was proud. His little scout platoon had the highest rate of bombs spotted and insurgents captured in their entire squadron. "Every soldier in my platoon had fired weapons in firefights," he said later.
Every soldier in it had laughed at Funcheon's stories of compliant girls and alcoholic confusion. But there was a reason they stuck him up front.
In an armored cavalry scout platoon, when you risk running into roadside bombs, you pick the best gunner with the best pair of eyes and put him in the gun turret of the lead Humvee.
Back home, Alex's family and friends thought of him as a screw-up. But here, under a ruthless sun, 20 combat soldiers trusted Sgt. Alexander Funcheon with their lives.
Sgt. Medrano sat in the rear seat, on the right side, his M4 carbine between his knees. Funcheon sat in the gunner's elevated strap chair, his hips swaying in the straps only inches from Medrano's helmeted head. At the wheel, Botello drove, 20 to 30 mph, dodging potholes, scooting the convoy around slow traffic. Beside Botello, Martin, the conservative sergeant, at 29 an old man among kids, peered at a map, calling directions: "Scoot left now. Go this way. Go that way."
They came upon stalled traffic; someone had piled rocks in the road near an Iraqi police checkpoint.
"Go around to the left," Martin said.
Botello gunned the engine, drove onto the highway shoulder; Medrano saw dirt, sand, bushes and suddenly, a blast and a burst of light.
In the second Humvee, Bland saw Funcheon and the lead Humvee disappear in a giant ball of flame and dust. The blast rocked Bland's Humvee. When he regained vision, Bland watched Funcheon's Humvee roll out of control.
Bland, reeling from the explosion's concussion, jumped out of his Humvee with his M4 and raced forward.
Medrano screamed and screamed and screamed. The blast had hit from the left, six metal tubes, each about a foot long, eight inches in diameter, Iranian designed, filled with explosives firing superheated copper at supersonic speeds through the Humvee.
Medrano could taste dust and sulfur; he smelled burning rubber. His left shoulder was destroyed; his right hand torn. He heard a voice, soft, calm, matter of fact: "Oh, my God."
It was Funcheon.
Medrano, reeling from the concussive blast, had trouble opening his eyes, and when he got them open they burned from dust in the Humvee. He peered through the dust. Funcheon had collapsed out of the turret straps on his left side, his head in Botello's lap, his feet on Medrano's wrecked shoulder. He looked dead. Up front, Botello and Martin lay limp in their seats, staring sightlessly at the ceiling.
Medrano screamed again, and said a silent prayer. "Oh, Lord, let me hold my kids again!" Immediately he felt at peace. "I knew then that I was gonna make it." He felt himself going into shock, but wanted to help Funcheon and the others. He tried to move his arms; his left was paralyzed, his right hand torn.
Medrano saw a face at Botello's window. It was Jon Loera, the platoon medic. "Doc Loera!" Medrano called out. "I'm OK!" But he was not.
The platoon sergeant, Walter Greene, yanked Medrano's door open. Greene gripped Medrano's armor with both hands, pulled him gently to the ground, and pulled a knife. Greene and Loera sliced armor and clothing off Medrano's torso, looking for wounds pumping blood.
Bland, enraged, peered in the driver's window at Botello; the boy was still breathing. Bland felt sick. A few days before, Bland, Funcheon and the rest of them, goofing on Botello, had suggested one sickly-sweet sentiment after another, and Botello eagerly wrote them all down; he was wooing a girl and had begged help writing her. Bland could see now that Botello was dying.
Bland looked inside the Humvee, and saw and smelled what he expected; he'd been inside bombed Humvees before. The Iranian bombs sometimes punch only small holes in the outsides of vehicles, but inside, it's all shredded metal and body parts, cooked flesh, dust, burning plastic and the sulfur smell of explosives.
Bland peered down the road, his M4 in his hands. Iraqi police officers, standing at their checkpoint, stared at him, relaxed and calm. "Probably in on the bombing," Bland thought.
He wanted to hose them with his M4.
"The only time you should freak out is if you see guys in class A's walk up to the door.
--Alex Funcheon, e-mailing his mother, Jan. 24, 2007
Half an hour after the blast, Black Hawk helicopters blew clouds of dust in the air as they rose into the sunshine, carrying a bleeding Medrano, and the bodies of his dead buddies to a hospital.
1st Platoon went to their bunks at the Iraqi police station barracks and sat staring at nothing.
Army specialists in Baghdad called specialists back home.
In the leafy Bel Aire neighborhood where Funcheon had grown up, his mother heard a knock.
She saw, through small windows in the door, that the two men standing outside wore U.S. Army Class A dress uniforms.
"Go away," she told them, when she opened the door.
"We're sorry," one man said. "But we need to come in."
"Go away," she said. "I don't want to hear it."
She screamed, a long wail.
Karen Funcheon collapsed on the sofa in the living room where Alex had slept off hangovers. She screamed again. Gloria, Alex's little sister, still wrapped in a robe from her shower, reached out to her.
When Karen called her husband's cell phone, she wailed. Bob Funcheon could not understand at first.
He came home still holding the water bottle he'd carried on the golf course. He hurled the bottle across his yard.
He was so angry that he wanted to confront God and demand an explanation.
Within six weeks, he'd confront President Bush.
Coming Monday: The Funcheon family buries Alex; Lt. Bland dreams of blood.