In just hours, a friend and new dad was dead

Buddy in 101st struggles to grasp fragging incident

War in Iraq

March 24, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAMP PENNSYLVANIA, Kuwait -- It was the sort of exchange old friends have a million times.

"How's Coy doing?" Capt. Christopher Seifert asked. Coy is the 2-year-old son of Capt. Mark Johnson. Last week, doctors in Nashville, Tenn., implanted a pacemaker in his tiny chest.

"How's Terry?" Johnson asked. The two men, both of whom were married soon after college, liked to talk about their wives.

"Good," said Seifert. And the back-and-forth followed its comfortable, predictable course Saturday afternoon at the camp of the 101st Airborne Division here in the desert a few miles south of Iraq.

Just hours later, Seifert lay mortally wounded, the victim first of a grenade attack as he slept and then a gunshot wound in his lower back.

An Army sergeant whom authorities identified as Asan Akbar of the 326th Engineer Battalion was detained in connection with yesterday morning's attack, which injured 15 other soldiers -- including the division commander -- at least three of them seriously.

Akbar, 31, was being questioned but had not been charged. He is a Muslim and made anti-American statements after he was apprehended, said soldiers at the scene.

George Heath, a spokesman for the division in Fort Campbell, Ky., said Akbar had been "having what some might call an attitude problem." Max Blumenfeld, an army spokesman in Kuwait City, said the motive for the attack "most likely was resentment."

The military is by its nature a dangerous profession, but members of the 101st were finding it hard to fathom why one of their own might have turned his weapons and know-how against his colleagues -- why a fragging happened to them.

It was even more personal for Johnson, a 28-year-old intelligence officer struggling with the loss of his friend, and his words were filled with anger.

"That guy needs to go before a firing squad, I'm sorry," Johnson said last night.

Most of his thoughts were about Seifert, 27. "The guy goes off to fight for his country, and some little punk throws a grenade and shoots Chris in the back," he said. "Come on, Chris deserved better than that."

He and Seifert became second lieutenants at the same time. Johnson, from Oregon, and Seifert, from Pennsylvania, met in July 1998 on a flight to Germany, en route to their first overseas posting in the Army.

"Just a laid-back guy, real personable." That was Johnson's first impression. Seifert was tall -- 6 foot 2 -- with brown hair. He had a small chin and a big smile.

Each man served as a platoon leader in the 1st Battalion of the 6th Infantry Regiment. Each man went to Albania in 1999 as part of Talk Force Hawk, before the Kosovo war. Each attended the Military Intelligence Captains Course at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., during the same 10-month span.

"He was kind of a goofy guy," Johnson said. "He's not one of those real hard types."

Each joined the 101st Airborne Division last year as intelligence officers.

The Johnsons, Seiferts and a third couple would meet for dinner near Fort Campbell, usually at the Johnsons' because they were the only ones with children. But life was changing for Seifert.

"He's a new dad," Johnson said. "His child is a few months old. Chris was not scared. The guy was as good an officer as I know. But it was hard on him leaving that little baby behind."

Here, Seifert was assistant intelligence officer for the division's 1st Brigade. Johnson oversees intelligence-gathering for the 3rd Battalion, part of the brigade. That means doing everything from checking weather forecasts to predicting enemy responses.

"If I needed anything I went to Chris," Johnson said. "He had the big picture and bailed me out when it was all messed up."

The Los Angeles Times contributed to this article.

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