In the wee hours of May 21, an Army Humvee on night patrol in Iraq hit a bump and flipped. An American soldier was crushed to death, and the driver - a 25-year-old sergeant from Dundalk with an infectious smile - faces the possibility of life in prison.
Sgt. Oscar L. Nelson III's fate will be decided this week at a general court-martial in Tikrit, Iraq, where Nelson is charged with unpremeditated murder and other serious charges in the death of Spc. Nathaniel A. Caldwell Jr., an aspiring minister.
Whatever the outcome of the Army trial - and one expert questions the key charge - the case has devastated two families. In the military, dying in the fight is considered a noble sacrifice. There is nothing noble about a senseless death. And being accused of causing one is akin to being labeled a coward.
At best, Caldwell, 27, died in an accident; at worst, it will be deemed murder. If nothing else, Nelson must grapple with the fact that he was behind the wheel when a man died. If convicted, he could be locked up at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., for the rest of his life.
At a time when soldiers are dying in Iraq nearly every day, Caldwell's death is one more variant on a recurring tragedy.
"Nate went over there to serve his country," said Caldwell's mother, Marion Brooks, from her home in Winslow, Ariz. "He did not go to get killed by a fellow soldier. That was such a waste."
Nelson's parents in Dundalk are distraught and in disbelief. To them the Army is turning a terrible accident into a crime, their son into a criminal.
"Oscar would not endanger his men under any circumstance," said Teresa Steele, who informally adopted Nelson with her husband, Larry Steele Jr., a dozen years ago. "To Oscar," Larry said, "everything is duty."
The Steeles had three sons when Oscar Nelson became their fourth as a teen-ager. One day in the early 1990s, their eldest son, Larry W., told them his 13-year-old pal needed a place to stay because he had been sleeping under the bleachers at Bear Creek Elementary School.
The parents juggled sleeping arrangements at their tidy home on a Dundalk cul-de-sac to make room. The Steeles said Oscar's birth mother had made life difficult: She didn't let him play sports, punished him often and kicked him out.
Traced to her Dundalk home through public records, Marilyn Nelson gasped into the phone when she heard the charges against her son. Then she hung up when asked why she had stopped raising Oscar. The Steeles say she refused to let them adopt or become guardians, yet she wanted little to do with him.
Oscar was black, the Steeles white. Other than a neighbor's gripe about having a "colored kid" on the block, race was irrelevant, the Steeles said. Over time, Oscar called them Mom and Dad, and the four boys saw themselves as brothers.
"It's not who gives birth to you," said Teresa Steele, 47, a paralegal at a Towson law firm. "It's who takes care of you and loves you."
Unable to make himself taller, Nelson bulked up his 5-foot-6 frame. He was a quiet guy who would sit to the side laughing at someone else's jokes and flashing what Larry Jr. calls his "million-dollar smile." Nelson's youngest brother, Jason, now a 19-year-old Marine, idolized him and lifted weights to be more like him.
When he turned 18, Oscar Nelson joined the Marines. He served nearly five years and met his wife, Cheryl, during his stint. Within months of leaving the Marines he joined the Army. His family said he found civilian life not "squared away" enough. He felt he belonged in the military.
Aiming for the clergy
Nate Caldwell was the middle of three sons, and the only one Brooks describes as "better than a Boy Scout." Her other sons were typical kids - "heathens," she said with a laugh.
Not Nate. His mother, now 45, remembers the days when she was working, going to school and raising the kids. Nate, then just 11, offered to make breakfast for the family so she could sleep longer.
While at Maryvale High School in Phoenix, he worked as a camp counselor and volunteered at a food bank. He played folk music on the guitar and basketball for Peru State College in Nebraska.
Since 10th grade he had talked about becoming a nondenominational minister. When he joined the Army in early 2001, he hoped to enter the chaplain program. His mother said he felt he could help soldiers who needed spiritual counseling.
By the time he shipped off to the Middle East this year, he was married to his second wife and was the father of two. In the wedding video that his mother has been watching lately, he boasts that Amanda, his 27-year-old bride, will make a beautiful minister's wife someday.
A `routine patrol'
Nelson and Caldwell went to Iraq with the 404th Aviation Support Battalion of the 4th Infantry Division (Mechanized). Nelson repaired generators and Caldwell was a tank mechanic.