Francis C. Obaji
Private First Class, United States Army
RELEASE from the United States Department of Defense
January 18, 2005
Media Contact: Army Public Affairs - (703) 692-2000 Public/Industry Contact: (703)428-0711
DoD Identifies Army Casualties
The Department of Defense announced today the death of two soldiers who were supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Private First Class Francis C. Obaji, 21, of Queens Village, New York, died January 17, 2005, in the 86th Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad, Iraq, after he was involved in a motor vehicle accident January 16, 2005, in Baghdad, Iraq. Obaji was assigned to the Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry Regiment, New York, New York.
Specialist Alain L. Kamolvathin, 21, of Blairstown, New Jersey, died January 16, 2005, in Baghdad, Iraq, when he was involved in a motor vehicle accident. Kamolvathin was assigned to the Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry Regiment, New York, New York.
These accidents are under investigation.
BY WIL CRUZ
Funerals for two city soldiers killed recently in Iraq have been set up for next week.
Services for Army Private First Class Francis Obaji, who was 21 when he was killed in a vehicle accident Monday in Baghdad, are set for Thursday, his family said.
Cyril Obaji, the soldier's father, said the funeral will be at St. Gabriel's Episcopal Church at 196-12 Jamaica Ave. in Hollis. A viewing of Francis Obaji, who lived in Queens Village, is set for 11 a.m. Thursday.
At 2 p.m. there will be a church service followed by a wake at 4 p.m., Cyril Obaji said. Burial will be Friday in Arlington National Cemetery.
Services for Sergeant Nathaniel Swindell, 24, are scheduled for Monday and Tuesday in the Bronx, his family said Friday. Swindell was killed last week when an Iraqi soldier accidentally discharged a weapon inside a military transport vehicle.
Swindell's father, Vernon Swindell, said a
wake will be Monday at the Herbert T. McCall's Funeral Home at 984 Prospect
Ave. in the Bronx. Viewing hours are from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. The funeral
is set for 10 a.m. Tuesday at the Morrisania Cultural Center at 1180 Rev.
James Polite Ave. Swindell will be buried in the Long Island National Cemetery.
Family cries for latest hero soldier
BY CELESTE KATZ
Courtesy of the New York Daily News
28 January 2005
Private First Class Francis Obaji's long journey is almost over. It began in his boyhood home of Nigeria and took him to New York, where the horrors he witnessed on 9/11 drove him to join the Army and go to Iraq.
At age 21, he met his death there.
Yesterday, Obaji was mourned amid wails of anguish at a Queens church.
And today, his body will be buried among his fallen comrades at Arlington National Cemetery.
The hundreds who came to bid farewell to Obaji at St. Gabriel's Episcopal Church in Hollis remembered his trademark smile, his belief in the importance of peace, and the way he deferred his dream of becoming a doctor to serve with the famed Fighting 69th Infantry Regiment of the Army National Guard.
"He wanted to give back to the country he so loved," said his uncle, Kingsley Obaji.
Francis Obaji came to the U.S. with his family in 1994. He was a track star at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn and went on to study microbiology at the College of Staten Island. He applied for U.S. citizenship three years ago.
Last Sunday, he died in Baghdad.
Obaji's parents said military officials told them their son's vehicle came under attack, burst into flames and tumbled into a ditch.
Dressed in black, mourners knelt and wept at the open casket before the service, crossing themselves as they gazed at the body of the young man in the crisp Army uniform.
Obaji's grieving parents, Cyril and Violet Obaji, bowed their heads in prayer at the front of the church as the martial strains of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" cut through a sweet-smelling haze of incense.
Another of the soldier's uncles, Sam Obaji, who traveled from Nigeria for the funeral, reminded the mourners that his nephew's middle name, Chinomso, means "God is with us."
"Our God is always with us, no matter what happens," he said.
Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-Queens) presented the Obaji family with a flag once flown over the U.S. Capitol, and political and church leaders, including the Rev. Orris Walker Jr., bishop of Long Island, offered words of faith and solace.
"I want you to know your son is a hero, because freedom is not free," Meeks told the soldier's parents.
Cries swelled again as members of the Fighting 69th carried Obaji's flag-draped coffin out into the unforgiving cold. The mourners raised their hands in valediction.
"Goodbye, Francis!" they called through their
tears. "You will never be forgotten!"
Francis Obaji was born in Nigeria and raised in New York. And when he watched the World Trade Center towers collapse September 11, 2001, as he waited for the Staten Island Ferry, he decided he had to become a soldier.
He died in Iraq.
And on a bright and bitter January day, as family and friends clutched each other and wept, Private First Class Francis Obaji was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Obaji, 21, had wanted to be a doctor. He was supposed to have been home by the end of March.
As Obaji's flag-draped silver coffin glistened in the wan winter sun yesterday, two priests conducted the funeral in both English and his native language of Ibo, with rituals and hymns from Nigeria and from St. Gabriel's Episcopal Church, his church in Queens Village, New York.
The Rev. William Willard of St. Gabriel's, who traveled to Arlington with Obaji's family, praised God and asked that He "make us aware of the shortness and uncertainty of human life." A mourner withdrew from the crowd and mopped his eyes behind a newly planted tree. A child dangled a yellow doll and looked off into the clouds.
Obaji, a college student and the oldest of five children -- his youngest sibling is 4 -- had shipped out for Iraq in September as part of the New York National Guard's famed Fighting 69th. The unit was formed by Irish immigrants during the Civil War, at the height of anti-Irish immigrant fervor, when no other units wanted them. Now, the 69th is made up of America's newest immigrants, including Obaji and Alain L. Kamolvathin, also 21, a Thai immigrant who died with him.
The two were out on patrol, military officials said, riding in a Humvee in Baghdad on Jan. 16, when the vehicle rolled over into a ditch. Kamolvathin died that day. Obaji died the next day at a military hospital in Baghdad.
Obaji's father, Cyril, a limousine driver in Queens who had come to the United States to work for 15 years before bringing his family over in 1994, told New York newspapers that perhaps his son had come under enemy fire or had swerved to avoid one of myriad improvised explosive devices that have cost the lives of so many in Iraq. Pentagon officials, however, said the deaths were classified "non-hostile." An investigation continues.
At Arlington, the six-soldier honor guard carefully folded an American flag. A co-celebrant began to chant in Ibo, calling Obaji "my hero." The flag was presented to Obaji's aunt, Maggie Obaji, as were Obaji's Good Conduct Medal, Bronze Star and Purple Heart.
Family members told New York newspapers that Obaji, who called home frequently, didn't agree with the reasoning for the war but wasn't afraid of dying. In recent days, his mother, Violet, has been so heavy with grief that she could not rise from the couch, crying out in Ibo "Francis is gone! He took me with him." A distraught Cyril Obaji lamented in the New York Daily News that although his son was "a brave soldier," he was lost in a "useless war."
Obaji was the 112th soldier killed in Operation
Iraqi Freedom to be buried at Arlington. The small white gravestones now
take up three of the most recently filled rows on a wide, grassy field
patched with snow. "We know we're going to have more," said Arlington historian
Tom Sherlock. As a sole bugler played a mournful taps, a large yellow backhoe
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 January 19, 2005, 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."
Throughout, Francis' mother, Violet, sat silently amid the crush of well-wishers, the weight of her son's loss visible in her downcast eyes. She seemed alone.
Francis Obaji was the eldest of five siblings. His sister, Marilyn, sat silently during the ceremony, and wept. She is 19, and extremely close to her big brother.
There also is Stanley, 15, and Helen, 6.
Climbing on his parents' laps was little Brian, who is 4, and doesn't seem to understand completely that Francis, his hero, is not coming back.
Born in Nigeria, Francis' father, a limousine company owner, brought the family to America a decade ago, settling first in Brooklyn before moving to Queens.
"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."
When he last spoke to his parents, Francis Obaji said he expected to be home by Easter.
Now he is home.
Posted: 21 January 2005 Updated: 28 January 2005 Updated: 29 January 2005 Updated: 1 February 2005
Updated: 21 August 2005