Monday, January 31, 2005

Election proves Heroes did not die in vain...

ELECTION PROVES OUR GI SON DIED FOR GOOD CAUSE By ANDREA PEYSER -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- January 31, 2005 -- HE DIED too soon. On the eve of Iraq's historic free election, Francis Obaji was laid to rest in the frigid ground of Arlington National Cemetery. Ten days earlier, on Jan. 19, Francis was killed in an enemy ambush in Baghdad. Ten days. Had he lived just two weeks longer, Francis would have seen yesterday's culmination of everything for which he sacrificed, fought, prayed and died. He was 21. Don't dare call it a waste. At the mere suggestion that his son's passing might be for naught, Francis' heartbroken father, Cyril, did something extraordinary. He looked up from his tears. And he laughed. "Not at all," he said with a smile. "He died for freedom," Francis' uncle, Kingsley Obaji, told me unwaveringly. "He died doing what he believed in," said Kingsley. "He was one of thousands of men and women who collectively made a difference in Iraq. There is no doubt in my mind. "He died fighting for freedom. He believed in freedom." What's more, Francis died knowing that he made a difference, his father said, and for a moment, pride overtook his sorrow. That knowledge means everything to Cyril Obaji. Calling home on the telephone from Iraq, Francis would describe the tough job he and his comrades performed in often hostile conditions. He faced the danger with eyes open. Said his dad: "They were equal to the task." "They knew at last freedom will prevail over there and democracy will reign," said Cyril. "I do believe very strongly that one day the people over there will breathe the air of peace, freedom and unity. "In the end, he's going to be an integral part of democracy." I met the Obaji family at a Nigerian-style wake held in Francis' memory at the gymnasium of Roy Wilkins Park, down the road from their Queens Village home. Hundreds of family, friends and neighbors gathered to tell stories about Francis. "Everyone loved Francis," Cyril explained. "Let's get together and say thanks to God, instead of crying. Let's celebrate the life of Francis." "He was just an American boy," said his uncle. "He loved this country, and he wanted to give back." Francis was studying microbiology at Staten Island University, with an eye toward entering medical school, when 9/11 changed him. On that awful morning, he was waiting for the ferry in lower Manhattan, and had a front-row view of the carnage. He walked nearly all the way through Brooklyn, before finding a ride back to Queens. In that time, everything he thought he lived for took a turn. All of a sudden, life was no longer just about him. At his graveside in Arlington, surrounded by more than 300 friends and relatives who traveled by bus, plane, car from New York and the Carolinas, Francis' uncle, Chief Sam Obaji, told mourners how the terror attacks drove Francis to change his life's path. He had no choice. "He suffered very much on 9/11, like so many others. He knew he was lucky he didn't die," his uncle told them. "He had to help humanity. To stop terrorism worldwide." "He wanted to help create security and peace, not only to the people of the United States, but to the people of Iraq and all over the world," his dad told me. Francis joined the National Guard in 2003, after the United States invaded Iraq. He did not tell his family, for he was certain they would object to him interrupting his studies. But he was determined to go to Iraq. Four months ago, he shipped out to Baghdad with the "Fighting 69th," a unit that has suffered more than its share of losses. Yesterday, Francis Obaji's relatives gathered in the family's Queens Village home. Cyril Obaji watched the Iraqi elections on TV nervously. Then he turned the set off. Then on again. "We pray and hope the election will come out a success," Cyril told me. "Then, Francis' death will not have been in vain."

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