A Death in the Class of 9/11

A star graduate from West Point, killed in Iraq, is laid to rest. But what does her death tell us about the price America is paying for freedom in Iraq?

The question everyone seems to be asking is: why Emily?

U.S. Army 2nd Lieut. Emily Perez, 23, was buried Tuesday at West Point, on a high bluff overlooking the Hudson River, alongside two centuries of fallen graduates from the United States Military Academy. She was the first combat death from the 2005 graduating class — called "the class of 9/11" because they arrived at the prestigious school just two weeks before the terror attacks. She was also the first female West Point graduate to be killed in Iraq.

She died an ordinary death in Iraq, at least by today's standards: a roadside bomb exploded as she led her platoon in a convoy south of Baghdad on Sept. 12. But what makes this death so difficult in a sea of violence is just how extraordinary this particular soldier was.

I spent a month at West Point reporting for our May 2005 cover story on her fellow cadets in the class of 9/11. I never met Perez in my time there, but I recognize many of her qualities in the friends I made at the academy. They are kids who could have chosen any path in life, but instead turned down elite civilian universities to volunteer for the privations of a military college and an ensuing five-year commitment to the Army.

Even at a school of overachievers, Perez's friends and teachers say that she stood out. She held the second-highest rank in her senior class, and, as Brigade Command Sergeant Major, was the highest-ranking minority woman in the history of West Point. She set school records as a sprinter on the track team, led the school's gospel choir, tutored a number of other students and even helped start a dance squad to cheer on the football and basketball teams. Professors wanted her to be in their classes, soldiers wanted her to lead their cadets, underclassmen wanted to catch a little bit of the unstoppable drive that pushed her to meet and exceed the many challenges the academy throws at its students.

"People often say only good things about someone after they've died, but none of this is hyperbole," says Morten Ender, her faculty advisor in the Sociology Program at West Point. "Emily was amazing."

"She was a star among stars," is how classmate Meagan Belk puts it. "You just never would have imagined this would happen to her."

Yolanda Ramirez-Raphael, her roommate at West Point, says that Perez's accomplishments in life all stemmed from an unshakeable self-confidence. "She didn't worry about whether someone liked her or not," says Ramirez-Raphael. At male-dominated West Point, she says, "women will sometimes try to change their leadership style, but not Emily. She always got right to the point." Perez wasn't bashful about her faith either. Every Sunday morning, she'd wake up by playing gospel CDs as she read the Bible. Her roommate Ramirez-Raphael, always trying to catch up on sleep, says Sunday mornings weren't safe until Perez — and the tambourine she always took to play in the Gospel Choir — were at church.

That faith drove Perez to envision a life of service beyond war. As a teenager in Fort Washington, Md., she set up an AIDS ministry in her church. And although her faculty advisor Ender says she could have been literally anything she wanted to, she was most passionate about global-health issues. "She could have been the next Paul Farmer," says Ender. "That's the commitment, and the talent, that she had."

Roadside bombs are generally believed to be the top killer of U.S. troops in Iraq (according to www.icasualty.org, almost a thousand U.S troops have been killed by the devices so far). The threat has persisted despite a multibillion-dollar U.S. campaign to neutralize it, and more than any element in Iraq has spread the dangers of war evenly from frontline soldiers to support personnel.

Perez understood those risks. She had chosen to go into the highly selective Medical Service Corps and, even though it's not a combat branch, she understood that she'd be in as much danger as anyone. Because of the shortened officer basic training of the medical corps, Ramirez-Raphael says that Perez "knew she would probably be deployed before the huah! infantry set were. She told me, 'I'll be there and back before those guys even get their boots in the sand.'" Ramirez-Raphael says that Perez had already survived several previous convoy attacks in Iraq. After one of those incidents, a mutual friend from West Point happened to be in the Quick Reaction Force that came in to secure the scene. "He told me that Emily held her own [afterwards]," says Ramirez-Raphael.

But there is no holding one's own against a fatal IED attack. It comes in a blast of dust and fire and, in an instant on Sept. 12, all of that exquisite training, and all of that irrepressible vitality, was stilled.

Classmate Paul Lushenko, now an army intelligence officer at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., says that the news of Emily's death hit everyone in the Class of 9/11 hard. "I think that we were under some sort of inability to understand that probably some of our classmates were going to die," he says. "I don't know. You just don't think it's going to happen to you." He brought in a picture of himself with Emily to show his platoon, which is composed of army linguists' — support staff who, like Perez, are not combat personnel. "I wanted to make clear the dangers," he says. "We're all on the front lines in this war."

"We lost one of the greatest accomplishments of the academy," adds Lushenko, who himself is itching to get into the fight in Iraq. "But that motivates me even more to get over there and serve my country."

Leigh Harrell, a fellow classmate of Perez's, emailed me from Baghdad to say that she ran into Perez in Iraq not long ago. "We talked for probably an hour telling each other about the wild experiences we'd already had as platoon leaders in combat," Harrell wrote. "We had some laughs and both talked of how much we were looking forward to going home and seeing our families again."

"There's so much I still wanted to experience with her," says Ramirez-Raphael. "I wanted to have families together, maybe even send our poor little kids to West Point some day."

But it is the question of why — why a roadside bomb that costs a pittance to make killed a young officer with so much left to offer her country – that undoes Ramirez-Raphael. Having buried her friend on Tuesday, the question is still too much on Thursday. "I don't know," she says, "I don't know. I've asked myself that every day since she died, and I cannot tell you."

While I was at West Point, the most impressive thing about cadets like Ramirez-Raphael was the way they were able to safeguard their sense of duty from whatever doubts or insecurities crept in about the mission. In the classroom, I watched Perez's classmates debate the successes and failures of the current U.S. occupation strategy. They learned about the dangers of this particular war, from watching videos of an IED explosion to discussing the fate of West Point graduate Gen. Eric Shinseki, who was forced into retirement for contradicting Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's estimates about how many troops would be needed in Iraq. But outside of the classroom, the cadets still mustered on the plain and marched in unison, a physical reminder of their willingness to accept and execute whatever mission they are given. On one of my last days at West Point, I watched from the stands as the class of 9/11 took the art of parading to its farcical zenith. A high wind had blown a tall plumed hat off of one of the lead cadets, forcing the hundreds that followed in box formation to try to step over it without glancing down or altering their parade stride. As you can imagine, this did not work out so well. Cadet after cadet ended up stumbling over a hat that could have easily been picked up and tossed out of the way.

Even the West Point parents in attendance couldn't help but snicker at these proud ranks being decimated by a hat. But watching this, I finally was able to articulate something that I had only vaguely sensed before: This thing that West Pointers do — parading in unyielding formation, shining already gleaming boots, enlisting to sacrifice their lives on some unknown and unloved territory far from home — is not done out of ignorance, but out of faith. They have faith that the American values and resourcefulness do not lend themselves to meaningless death. They have faith that not only is freedom worth fighting for, but that we do not fight for any lesser end.

What do we owe them in return? An honest debate and some tough questions that soldiers by definition cannot outwardly ask or answer. Many of her classmates, like Lushenko, see Perez's death as a reason for more resolve in the fight. And one imagines that Perez, who was not given to second-guessing herself or her mission, would agree. This election season has featured Democrats obsessed with blaming their opponents for getting into the war and Republicans mistaking discussion for sedition. Instead, we should be asking straight questions: Do we have enough troops? Is the war winnable? Should we redeploy to safer bases or should we be a more muscular presence on the streets of Iraq? "Emily was just a problem solver," says one of her fellow cadets. Iraq may have defied solution so far, but we owe her a continued, honest effort.

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For ever free said...

The author ends with this:
'...Instead, we should be asking straight questions: Do we have enough troops? Is the war winnable? Should we redeploy to safer bases or should we be a more muscular presence on the streets of Iraq?...'
Those are not THE right questions. The right questions are: is it the war on Iraq really about freedom or justice? what good has it brought to the Iraqi people, or to the US citizens? is anyone on US soil at least a bit safer because of it? What has this ilegal invasion to do with american's freedom?
You already know Iraq did not hold any massive destruction weaponry, dit not represent any menace against any of you. The only MDW in Iraq are those used by the US army against the insurgency, islamist militias and civilians. By the way, they are not the same thing. Whether we all disapprove Saddam or not, your army is engaged in an ilegal, murderous and unmoral war for profit. If your soldiers are educated no to ask themselves these questions, it is YOUR RESPONSABILITY to do so!

Just another guy said...

"for ever free" stands boldly on a pulpit of free speech and peace brought to him by brave men and women courageous enough and moral enough to stand up to cowards and thugs. So it shall always be. We don't do it for praise or recognition but only because it is the right thing to do; the only thing to do if you want to ensure real peace.