GovernmentA soldier’s story
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The death of Specialist Artimus Demone Brassfield is succinctly laid out in an official Army “Certificate of Death (Overseas).”
It states that Brassfield died at 11:06 a.m. on Oct. 24, 2003, in Samaria, Iraq. It notes that he was a male, born on March 28, 1981, which means he was 22 when he died. It identifies his race as “Negroid,” notes that he was married and that his religion was “Christian church.”
Under “Cause of death,” it says, “Perforating and penetrating ballistic injuries.” The “Interval between onset and death,” the certificate says, was “Minutes.”
There are four boxes beneath a “Mode of death” rubric: Natural, Accident, Suicide and Homicide. The box next to “Homicide” is marked with an “X.”
A portion of the report titled “Circumstances surrounding death due to external causes” contains the notation, “Decedent found unresponsive subsequent to a mortar attack.”
The document is signed by a deputy medical examiner stationed at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, located on a U.S. military base in Germany.
A second form, ““Report of casualty,” lists “Type: Hostile,” “Status: Deceased,” “Category: KIA.” The document states that Brassfield was born in “Meridiam MS” (it was actually Meridian), that he entered the Army on “23 Mar 2001” and that his home of record at the time of entry was Flint, Mich. It states that his pay grade was E-4, that his “Basic pay” was $1,665.30 per month, or $19,983.60 a year. His “Hazardous Duty Pay” was $225 per month, a rate of $2,700 a year.
“Interested persons” number three: His wife, Andrea, who at the time was living at his stateside post, Fort Hood, Texas (she has since returned to Flint); his father, Cary, of Flint; and his mother, Patricia, of Xenia, Ohio.
Where the form asks for “Remarks,” the following words appear: “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”
What the documents do not reflect is the fact that Brassfield is one of 21 people from Michigan who have died in Iraq. They do not indicate his assignment, which was driving an M-1 Abrams tank. They do not mention that another soldier, 26-year-old Jose Mora of Bell Gardens, Calif. (who was not in Brassfield’s unit), was also killed in the mortar attack.
Metro Times contacted numerous military public affairs officers — in Washington, D.C., in Texas, in Delaware, even in Iraq — in an attempt to learn more about Specialist Brassfield. To no avail. Documents like the one cited above were requested from the military but were provided by Brassfield’s widow.
One public affairs officer at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, home of the nation’s most prominent military mortuary, is apparently worried about some incipient scandal.
“Can I ask why you are interested in this soldier?” she asks. “We have 452 fatalities. Why the interest in this one?”
Even when they know any facts, military mouthpieces are notoriously reticent to share them with the public. There are privacy concerns, of course, but it’s fairly safe to presume that from a public relations perspective, dead soldiers are best kept out of sight and out of mind.
And military documents are, by necessity perhaps, stark, tersely efficient, devoid of any drama or pain or narrative grace.
In an e-mail interview with Metro Times, Brassfield’s immediate commander, Staff Sgt. William Annussek, provides details that the military’s paid spokespeople and its blizzard of inaccessible paperwork eschew.
“We had a mission in the afternoon [of Oct. 24] and we had to fix the tank,” Annussek writes. “We started early. We finished, and Dutter [the gunnery officer] and I were going to go back to the room. Brass said he was going to talk to his friend, and Dutter and I started walking away. We got about 50 feet away, and a mortar hit. It knocked Dutter and I down. We jumped up and ducked behind a pillar while four more mortars dropped in. We waited a couple of seconds and ran around the weight-room tent.
“There he was, lying next to the weight-room tent with his sunglasses on.”
Annussek says the fact that Brassfield wore shades “saved me a lot of pain, because I realized right away he was killed. We tried to stop the bleeding and carried him to the doctors. They couldn’t help him.
“Hearing the doc say Brass was dead shook me and Dutter up bad. Of course, I was in denial, and just walked to my room and cried for a good three or four hours. My mind was shot and I didn’t know what to do. I felt as a leader and his tank commander that I let him and his family down. In the military, you’re taught to take care of your soldiers and I felt like I failed even though it was uncontrolled.
“You know, you really don’t realize how close you are until it’s gone. Our crew was so tight and loved each other to death.”
Annussek takes solace in the knowledge that death was nearly instantaneous for Brassfield.
“I don’t believe he suffered.”
For years, the U.S. Air Force Base at Dover has been a portal through which the remains of the fallen U.S. soldiers have passed.
Specialist Artimus Brassfield passed this way.
News organizations once regularly covered the arrival of cargo planes carrying flag-draped coffins. But in 1990, during the run-up to Operation Desert Storm, President George Herbert Walker Bush decreed that ceremonial receipt of the fatalities of war, and all press coverage thereof, would cease at Dover. Though the ban was expanded to cover all military installations during the Clinton administration, it was also widely ignored.
In March 2003, weeks before Operation Iraqi Freedom began, the Pentagon issued a directive stating that the policy would be assiduously enforced.
This was undoubtedly due to the so-called “Dover Test” — a term coined to describe the gauge the nation’s leaders must heed to determine public support for military adventures. The Dover Test asks this question: How many flag-draped coffins will Americans tolerate before a president pays an unacceptable political price?
President George W. Bush, the self-proclaimed “War President,” has made a habit of speaking to raucous gatherings of soldiers, who tend to hoot approvingly at what he has to say.
He has not, however, attended a single funeral of a soldier killed during his presidency. Dan Bartlett, the White House’s communications director, told reporters, “The public wants the commander-in-chief to have proper perspective and keep his eye on the big picture and the ball. At the same time, they want their president to understand the hardship and sacrifice many Americans are enduring at a time of war. And we believe he is striking that balance.”
The president does write to the families of fallen soldiers, including Brassfield’s, expressing condolences and the nation’s gratitude for the sacrifice made.
Brassfield was a member of the nondenominational Ebeneezer Ministries. That church’s pastor, the Rev. Urundi Knox, says the sermon he delivered at the memorial asked mourners “to be introspective and take a look at ourselves. I definitely had to consider his patriotism. He was willing to serve, and stand for the country. I asked everyone what they were willing to stand for. All of us make a stand for something. Hopefully, it’s a stand for what’s right.”
Brassfield was laid to rest in a silver-hued coffin with full military honors on Nov. 5, 2003, in River Rest Cemetery in Flint. His Bronze Star and Purple Heart medals were displayed.
Knox is certain the uniformed soldier who played “Taps” at the burial was genuine. The military, you see, has an acute shortage of buglers, and so was forced to develop a “Taps”-playing tape device that’s inserted into the horns of ersatz buglers at some interments.
“He played,” Knox says. “It was a very moving service.”
Anyone who knew Artimus Brassfield is quick to acknowledge that his social skills were advanced. He was fun-loving — a cajoling jokester who knew well the power of his broad smile and considerable charm. He loved the quest for a shortcut, embracing the role of good-natured piker while his friends played along. He was fastidious about his grooming, and he liked the idea of combat medals adorning his Army uniform.
They are also unanimous in agreeing that scholarship was not his forte. He twice flunked the exam to qualify for admission into the Army. But he was so determined to serve he took it a third time and succeeded.
“He cried because he didn’t pass the second time,” says his father, Cary, 47, an administrator who is now working toward a degree in counseling. Before his son took the test a third time, he says, “We went to church and they prayed for him and he passed it.”
But book smarts are frequently a dubious measure of intelligence. Clearly, Artimus possessed a genius for goodwill.
“It’s going to sound trite,” the Rev. Knox says, “because it seems as though every time someone passes, everyone says what a wonderful person they were. But Artimus had such a joyous spirit, in his case it’s true. He had the magnetic personality. Everyone connected to him. He kept everyone smiling.”
“If you didn’t know him, you knew of him, or heard about him,” says Janero Hare, a friend of Artimus’ since childhood. “I don’t think he ever had an enemy.”
Ken Brassfield, Artimus’ uncle, calls his late nephew “a born leader. He was definitely not a follower. He said what he meant, and he meant what he said. One time we were talking and he said, ‘Uncle Ken, you paint pictures. When you talk, you tell stories. You make it plain.’ But it was Artimus who was like that. When he left your presence, you definitely knew he’d been there.”
When it was time to halt the horseplay, his compassion emerged.
Ken Brassfield recalls a time when Artimus’ father was laid up after undergoing surgery.
“His father wasn’t able to do very much. Artimus would get his father’s breakfast,” Ken Brassfield says. “He’d be in the kitchen trying to fix breakfast, and it was touching. He’d make oatmeal.”
Cary Brassfield grins at the memory. “I’d eat it, but it was super sweet,” he says.
Artimus looked up to his father, who served in the Army but never saw combat. Artimus and his brother, Quintan, now 21, were transfixed by photos of their father in uniform. Today, Quintan is a student at Baker College in Muskegon, training in aviation. He hopes to become a fighter pilot.
“It’s kind of a tradition in our family,” Quintan says. “We kind of want to be like our dad. He [Artimus] wanted to make dad proud, because he didn’t want to go to college.”
Cary and Patricia Brassfield divorced when their boys were small. The father was living in Flint, the mother in Ohio, with Artimus, Quintan and their two older sisters.
“Artimus was having difficulty in school, and his mother and I were fighting about him,” Cary says. “In March ’93 at his 11th birthday party, he cried and said he wanted to be with his dad.”
Cary Brassfield says he trekked to Ohio and took Artimus from his mother’s home while she was at the dentist. Though he says his ex-wife initially “wanted to have me put in jail,” he convinced her to allow the boy to stay in Flint, where Cary applied some of the discipline he’d learned in the Army. He enrolled the boy in programs designed to build his self-esteem. Artimus joined a junior fraternity that did community service and had a step squad that performed in public and traveled widely. He played football at Central High, and he was active at Ebeneezer. When his father decided to attend a different church (where he is now an assistant pastor), Artimus chose to remain at Ebeneezer, where he had many friends.
His father provided some informed advice as his son left for Army training.
“I told him to do as you’re told, obey,” Cary Brassfield says. “He was very expressive. He would talk back. But still, everybody liked him. I encouraged him to keep his mouth shut. I had succeeded in whatever I did, and I did it by taking orders and knowing my responsibilities. I love the Army. I love the uniform.”
Cary Brassfield says his son found new purpose and “blossomed” after he entered the Army.
“When he came home for Christmas, he kept his boots polished and his uniform pressed,” he says. “You do feel a certain esprit de corps.
“When he found out he was going over to Iraq, he said, ‘I’m not afraid. When we get there we’re going to kick butt.’ He often bragged about being the best gunners, being in the best unit. He was gung-ho. It was like he owned that tank.”
Quintan Brassfield says his brother had no qualms about heading into combat.
“I talked to him before he left to go over to Iraq,” Quintan says. “I was very confident. He put the confidence in me. He said ‘Our technology is way better and I’ll be in a tank, and nothing could penetrate the tank.’”
From Iraq, he wrote e-mails and letters to his wife and family. One missive, sent shortly after he was deployed in April 2003, described his entry into Iraq from Kuwait.
“How you doing, pops? I’m good. Well, we crossed into Iraq and from Iraq into Baghdad. I ain’t gonna lie. I thought we were gonna exchange fire with the enemy but none of that. My tank was the first tank from the 4th ID to cross into Baghdad. I feel proud about that. … It took us a whole day to get from Kuwait to Baghdad. It was terrible long and smelly march. We had locals running up to the vehicles trying to get food rooting us on screaming no more Saddam. Be thankful you live the way you live in the U.S. because their homes are torn down and messed up. They’re made out of mud and towels and the heat is almost unbearable but the wind always blows hard. This is definitely an experience. I never thought this was where I would be. … The fighting has stopped right now and I don’t know how long it’ll be that way. I’m sure when the tank companies get their first mission they will see a little combat but basically I think we are keeping peace. … I hope I still get a combat patch that will make my uniform look even better. Coming home with awards to put on my Class A’s [uniform], go to church, boy the people will have questions to ask. Alright, pop, I still have to write Chub [Quintan] so I love you and keep me in your prayers that we make it home the same way we left physically and mentally. SPC Brassfield.”
Though he sometimes spoke of quitting the Army and becoming a barber, Artimus Brassfield re-enlisted for three more years while on duty in Iraq.
Quintan says he was the last in the family to learn of his brother’s death. He was watching television with friends in the dorm, when he “got a bad feeling” and retreated to his own room.
“I went downstairs and my answering machine was blinking,” he says. “I hit the play button, and it was campus security. It said give your father a call, it was an emergency. The first thing I thought of was him [Artimus]. I called dad, and he’s like, ‘Oh, Quin.’ He sounded kind of happy or relieved. I said, ‘Are you OK?’ And he said, “No. You haven’t heard? Your brother was killed this morning.’ The pain struck that fast, but I didn’t cry. I didn’t cry at all, really, until at the funeral. Then, it was because it hurt to see his best friends cry.”
Cary Brassfield learned of his son’s death via a cell phone call from his daughter-in-law. He was driving to Flint from Ann Arbor, where he is taking courses at the University of Michigan.
“He made me very proud that I was his father,” Cary Brassfield says. “He was trying to give hope.”
As for himself, he says, he has received lots of support from friends and kin, and cards and letters from people all over the country.
“You get through it,” he says. “You have to.”
Andrea Brassfield was mowing the lawn in front of her home at Fort Hood when the uniformed men drove up.
“They asked me if I was Andrea Brassfield, and I said I was,” she says. “They said they were sorry to inform me that Artimus had been killed that morning.”
In addition to her own grief and shock, she faced the miserable task of informing Artimus’ parents.
“I was overwhelmed,” she says. “I didn’t think I could do it, but I did.”
Oddly, she says the men who informed her of Artimus’ death told her that he had been killed while working out in a gym, a misunderstanding one might attribute to his proximity to the weight-lifting tent at the time of the attack.
Initial press reports of his death, including several in Michigan, stated that he was killed while playing basketball. Brassfield did, in fact, love to play hoops. But it still rankles Andrea, 22, that so many people came to believe he died while playing a pickup game. She understands that military posts, even in combat zones, can have recreation facilities. But she says the basketball story makes it sound as though he was off at some idyllic summer camp, “goofing off.”
She says friends with husbands in Artimus’ unit heard from their spouses that the basketball story was bunk, so she kept making phone calls until she got in touch with a captain who gave her the true account.
Andrea Curtis met Artimus in November 1998. Within about a month, they were an item.
“He was different — quiet at first,” she says. “He was real cute, though, real attractive. He was a good guy. He didn’t smoke, drink or party real hard. He wasn’t thuggish or anything.”
Both were strong-willed, and they broke up for a time, only to reunite shortly before he reported for basic training at Fort Knox, Ky. Upon his graduation, they were married.
“I married him even though he was getting on my nerves and stuff,” she says. “I just thought he was the one for me. I thought we belonged together.”
Both his and her parents discouraged the union, she says, suggesting the young couple wait a while. But once Andrea and Artimus made up their minds to wed, their parents were supportive.
There was no time for a honeymoon. The newlyweds packed their car and drove to Fort Hood, where he had to report within a week.
The change of scenery was exhilarating, even exotic. Andrea had lived in Flint her entire life, and Artimus had spent most of his years in Ohio and Flint. The winter was pleasant and mild, and they were surrounded by lots of other young adults — people from all over the world, people who spoke Spanish, people from Pacific islands.
“It was pretty fun. There were people of different ethnic backgrounds,” she says. “Up here in Flint, it’s just black and white.”
The Army regimen seemed to agree with Artimus, she says.
“Before, he didn’t know what he wanted to do, or what kind of life he would lead,” she says. “The Army was a big change, a big move in his life.”
They talked of settling in Texas after he got out of the Army.
Andrea says her husband was excited about going to war, but that his enthusiasm waned during the Iraqi summer. He was able to call her frequently — at one point phoning her twice a day for a week straight.
“He didn’t want to be over there,” she says. “He complained that it was so hot. He passed out once because it was so hot.”
He also developed some doubts about the Army’s mission in Iraq, she says.
“He felt like the Iraqis there didn’t want their help. They were yelling at them and throwing rocks at them. He was surprised by that.
“At first, I was worried. But then he was calling every day. Everything seemed fine. He was just calling to talk to me.”
The separation was difficult for both.
“It was hard between us because sometimes we would argue over the phone. It got pretty rough,” she says.
Now, she says, the petty disagreements seem so far off.
Yet in death, Artimus and the Army have provided well for Andrea. The military is looking out for her. She says she received half of his $250,000 military life-insurance policy (Artimus had listed his father as the other beneficiary, she says), along with $967 a month in living expenses and $695 a month for her college expenses. She’s studying to be a physical therapy assistant at Mott Community College in Flint. She recently purchased a spacious home in a nice neighborhood.
Of course, she would give it all back in a second.
“He was too young,” she says. “He really hadn’t done anything yet. With him, I was going to start off new. We were going to have our own family. He wanted to do so many things in the future. He had a lot of plans.”
She makes frequent trips to his grave — usually on a birthday or an anniversary of some event in their relationship. There’s no gravestone, though it’s been ordered. No grass has grown over the grave yet. A spray of pine boughs and some ribbons and flowers adorn it.
Andrea says she never supported the war effort in Iraq.
“It should have been handled differently,” she says.
It’s an issue that Artimus’ father and brother are grappling with as well.
“My girlfriend would always say she hated Bush and this and that,” Quintan says. “And I told her I’m glad we have a president who would finally do something to stop Saddam. I thought maybe it would be worth a few U.S. lives to stop it. But I never thought about my brother being one of them. At the time I was with the war.
“I’m glad that Saddam was caught. I’m waiting to see how I’m going to feel myself. If justice isn’t done in the end, then I won’t be happy. I hope it turns out good.
“I’m glad he was a part of something big. It wasn’t like he died in a car accident or something. What he died for was worth it. I hope he didn’t die in vain.”
Cary Brassfield — who professes undying affection for the Army and the uniform, who enlisted right out of high school and served just as U.S. involvement in Vietnam ended — is beset with doubts.
He doesn’t want to seem unpatriotic, he says, but “It’s hard, because you want to believe and be patriotic and believe in your leader. If we lose confidence in our government, it could destroy us as a nation.
“The United States is too proud. They don’t want to admit that they didn’t foresee some of the things they’ve gotten into. They want to believe the world is in a better place. It’s not safer there. People are still dying.
“I question. You become skeptical some ways. It’s hard not being negative. I want it to make some sense. I’ll just have to pray all the more.”
After some time in Baghdad, Artimus Brassfield’s tank was ordered to Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown. There, the soldiers were assigned to guard a building where people attempting to establish a democratic government in Iraq worked.
“We would post a tank at one of the entrances and pair in teams of two,” says Annussek. “Me and Brass would always pair up. The very first time we pulled guard at the building it was midnight, and not 10 minutes in there was a firefight between some Kurds and Turks. Brass and I jumped down in the turret and looked to see them running. That was the first time we’d encountered something that close, a lot of surprise and just a rush for both of us.”
Then the tank was ordered to Samaria, a city on the Tigris halfway between Baghdad and Tikrit, and a hotspot for insurgents.
“I’ll be honest, Brass was furious and did not want to go,” Annussek says. “We’d been through a lot of crap, but we knew Samaria was pretty bad. We’d been lucky and had some close calls, but going there we all knew was trouble. But he knew this was our job.”
One can almost imagine Annussek smiling as he writes of Brassfield’s arrival at Fort Hood in 2001.
“He looked like a young boy on his first day of school, not knowing what to expect,” Annussek says. “Right from there I had him under my wing. Right off the bat I noticed his charm. He had a great attitude and was willing to learn.”
On one of the tank unit’s first field exercises, Brassfield forgot his rain gear.
“He was soaked from head to toe for 24 hours,” Annussek says. “Talk about miserable. He wanted out right then and there. But he knew he had no choice but to make the best of it.
“I would always get on him about [his] uniform and what it looked like even though he looked better than a lot of soldiers around him. He hated that. He would try so hard to make me not find something wrong. … That kid would outshine almost everyone in the company, so I had to find other ways to get on him. He didn’t want me or the platoon sergeant to look at him like he couldn’t do something.
“I would use his friends to my advantage. See, he liked trying to hide out and get away from work. So I would play games with him so he would have no choice but to come back and finish. He was all about pride and making sure nobody looked at him like a typical Joe. He wanted to be on top.”
The M-1 tank, the backbone of the U.S. ground weapons, is a 60-ton high-tech marvel. It bristles with digital weaponry and is capable of reaching speeds of 45 mph.
Anussek’s tank crew established itself as one of the top in its division, and he says Brassfield was “a perfect fit.”
“We ended we having to shoot a gunnery on short notice and out of 56 tank crews, we finished fourth overall,” Annussek says. “We then got selected to interview for the division commander and command sergeant major’s guard force. Well, we were picked and became part of the assault command post.
“We soon heard we were getting deployed and geared up. We deployed to Kuwait and were attached to the division for this mission. We rolled out and ended up leading the division into Baghdad.
“Brass and the rest of us could do nothing but our job. All the playing around stopped and the training we had done was then second nature. We had no clue what to expect. We saw many firefights and were always on our toes.
“Brassfield and my gunner [Sgt. Dutter] never really got along together. Personalities were so different, it made it difficult. Brass and my loader [PFC Johnson] were like brothers the whole time.
“Well, to be honest I thought for sure those two [Brassfield and Dutter] were gonna fight a lot, ’cause being out there was very frustrating with the 130-degree heat and slow rations of water.”
Yet by the time the tank was ordered to Samaria, differences had been set aside.
“By this time we all became so close. Even Brass and Dutter were close. I can’t explain the feeling it is to spend every day with three other guys and knowing you’ve got to be there for each other. We got things done quickly and done right the first time.
“Brassfield was the type of guy who was a hard-ass but had a very sensitive side to him too. He didn’t want to look like the sellout to his friends. He knew right from wrong but found ways to get around it without his friends thinking he’s soft. He could make anyone who was mad laugh.
“I could get so mad at him, but he’d find that soft spot and put his charm on. He had a great smile and was a pretty boy from hell. He would go three weeks without a hair cut ’cause he was scared to let just anyone cut his hair.
“Brass was my driver, and what pissed me off about him is he always drove slow and would hate going through puddles. The hatch on the driver [position] had a leak.
“In Iraq, the only MRE he would eat is beef stew. Whenever he pissed me off I would take it out of the box and make him work for it. One night we were on the tank talking, and I made him, Johnson and two other guys sing the Army song over the radio. It was so damn funny listening to some really non-singing fools.”
Annussek writes that he and Brassfield spent many hours discussing their aspirations.
“We would have many conversations, and he would always talk about becoming a barber. That was definitely in his future. We would talk about his growing up, his problems at home and how they worked out. He always would talk how his father preaches and how he doesn’t want him to look down at him. He would talk about how much fun he had at home, but he knew he could never go back and stay. He would say that the Army is what he wanted to do. Brass liked the Army, and just like everyone else he would get frustrated being put on details and doing things he didn’t understand.
“We bounced around Iraq and … the whole time we had ups and downs. He would argue with his wife but then make up. He was going to buy my Trailblazer when we got home ’cause he was dying to get rid of his Ford Focus and get a SUV.”
Brassfield’s division, the Fourth Infantry, is currently demobilizing to return to the United States after nearly a year. Annussek expects to be reunited with his family within a week.
“You know, overall, Brass was the perfect soldier for the military,” he concludes. “He was a person determined to accomplish any task given. He made everyone laugh and together we had a relationship nobody can take away.
“Please let people know I’m sorry, and my prayers are with his family. He was my soldier, but more a good friend.”
Jeremy Voas is the editor of Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.