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The Baltimore Sun

Iraq crash shatters two families

Sun Staff

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.

By leaving for war in late March, the unit missed much of the heavy fighting. Still, Nelson wrote in a letter to his parents that he witnessed disturbing scenes of carnage, only adding to their anxiety.

Caldwell's wife, while nervous, figured the Army would protect her husband. Once President Bush declared hostilities over May 1, she felt she had less to worry about despite the continued unrest. His mother's main fear was that some Iraqi would shoot him for proselytizing, Bible in hand.

On May 20, about 11 p.m., Nelson, Caldwell and a third soldier, Spc. John D. Burden, were assigned to a routine patrol near their desert base camp. As Nelson told it in a letter to his parents, they were supposed to drive around for a few hours.

Caldwell climbed into the gunner's hatch atop the Humvee where the .50-caliber machine gun sat. Burden drove and Nelson sat next to him. During a bathroom break, Nelson wrote, he got in and drove off, playfully leaving Burden standing in the darkness and then turning the Humvee so its headlights shone on the soldier.

When Burden had gotten back in, Nelson began heading back to the camp's front gate. Another uneventful patrol was drawing to a close.

"I started to speed up," he wrote. "I told Caldwell to hold on and then turned out the lights. Just seconds later we were airborne. Caldwell was the only one with NVGs [night vision goggles]. It was pitch black.

"I was ejected out of the vehicle in the air right after the initial impact of us going upward. I got up and ran toward the direction of where I heard the vehicle land." Nelson found Burden conscious and alert but not Caldwell: "We still didn't find or hear from him."

A plausible lie

In the letter, Nelson said it was Burden who concocted a lie to tell Army investigators: that the wreck occurred while in pursuit of Iraqi looters. "That is when he came up with the story, not really story, but mention of looters. Sounded good so we said we were chasing looters."

The Army initially told Caldwell's family something else it now says wasn't true: that Caldwell, not Nelson, had been driving the Humvee.

Medics tried to save Caldwell, looking for a pulse as a wrecker lifted the toppled Humvee off him.

"The helicopter landed and I used the blankets that I got out of the ambulance to hold his head and rushed Caldwell out to the helicopter," Nelson wrote. "It was like he was looking at me the whole time."

On June 1, 11 days after the fatal crash, Army officials detained Nelson. He wrote his parents a letter, he said, while being held with "EPWs," or enemy prisoners of war. "I have been here ever since. At least my Arabic is getting good."

The Army says he was in the same building as Iraqi detainees but had no contact with them.

By the time he wrote the letter, Nelson knew the four charges against him: unpremeditated murder for "erratically" driving the Humvee "at excessive speed," carrying a possible life sentence; lying about the looters, up to five years; threatening Burden if he didn't lie, up to three years.

The fourth charge was assault, for allegedly shooting at two fellow soldiers six days earlier. Nelson told his parents it was a joke; he could get eight years. Burden was not charged.

Concluding the long letter home, he said, "I've never denied from the beginning that he died because I screwed up. If I would have never turned off the lights, he would still be alive, and I know that. I never meant for it to happen, but I know why it happened."

He closed with, "I love you mom and dad, Oscar."

'He's gone'

Amanda Caldwell, who married Nate four months before he shipped out, got word of his death May 21 while at the day care center where she worked, near her home in Copperas Cove, Texas. When the two military officials told her, she screamed and cried.

When she pulled herself together, she called Marion Brooks in Arizona.

"It's Nate," she said.

"How bad is he hurt?" Brooks asked. "Where are they taking him?"

"No, he's gone."

"Where'd they take him?"

"No, he's gone. Dead."

At the time, the family believed it was an accident. On June 2, Caldwell was buried with military honors in Phoenix, next to the grave of a sister killed by a drunken driver when she was 8 1/2 . Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona attended the service.

Two days after the funeral, Brooks received an eerie letter that Caldwell had written in Iraq. "He told me not to worry. He'd be OK, and when in doubt, call on the Lord."

"Son," she said last week, managing a bitter laugh, "easy for you to say."

Only days later did the Caldwell family learn of the allegations against Nelson. "I buried my husband," Amanda Caldwell said, "with a lie."

Word traveled even more slowly to Dundalk. The first inkling of trouble came in a letter from Nelson noting the "Caldwell incident" but giving no details. On June 12, the wives of two soldiers in Nelson's unit called the Steeles, leaving a message that something was wrong.

The next day, when Teresa Steele went to a Pizza Hut on Merritt Boulevard with her mother, her cell phone rang. It was Lt. Col. Alan Stull, who had recently ended his command of Nelson's battalion. As she stepped out to take the call, he told her about the charges he had pressed against Nelson.

"Ma'am," she recalled him saying, "you have to face facts. Your son murdered that boy." (Stull did not respond to an interview request placed at the Army's public affairs office.)

Crying uncontrollably, Steele stumbled back into the restaurant. Her mother saw her and assumed the worst. "Don't tell me he's died."

"They're charging him with murder, Mom!" she shouted.

Teresa and Larry Steele are in Tikrit for the court-martial. So is Cheryl, who could not be reached for comment. Amanda Caldwell and Robert Caldwell Jr., Nate's brother, are there, too. All except Larry, a 57-year-old terminal manager for a car carrier, were called as defense or prosecution witnesses and will have travel costs reimbursed.

Brooks recently had a hysterectomy and was warned by her doctor not to travel.

A military trial

A general court-martial is similar to a criminal trial in the United States. This one is being presided over by a colonel, with military personnel as jurors.

Military prosecutors are trying Nelson. He is defended by an Army lawyer, Capt. David Drake, who told the Steeles he is one of just two defense lawyers for 80,000 troops and averaging 130 client meetings a month. The standard of proof is the same as in a criminal trial: beyond a reasonable doubt.

Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University who has represented defendants in military cases, questioned the murder charge.

"It actually requires knowledge that death or great bodily harm was a probable consequence," he said. "That's a bit of a stretch when the defendant was riding in the same vehicle, unless they're suggesting the defendant had a death wish."

Turley suggested that manslaughter, if anything, might be more appropriate. One key difference between that and unpremeditated murder is the possible prison sentence - 10 years vs. life. In fact, Nelson wrote that he was first charged with "involuntary manslaughter and then they changed it to murder."

Turley also called it "unbelievable" that Nelson was held with enemy prisoners of war. Army spokeswoman Maj. Josslyn Aberle downplayed the issue, telling The Sun by e-mail that "he was never in contact with any Iraqi detainees."

Eugene R. Fidell, president of the nonprofit National Institute of Military Justice, said the case shows the Army is serious about keeping control in a chaotic situation.

"This is obviously a wild and woolly environment in which to try to administer justice," said Fidell, head of the Military Practice Group at the Washington law firm Feldesman Tucker Leifer Fidell. "What it says is there is a commitment on the part of the Army to ensure good order and discipline."

Not the first time

There have been a number of high-profile cases in which mistakes by members of the armed forces resulted in deaths. In some cases, the accused has done jail time, but other cases never reached a court-martial.

In 2001, the U.S. submarine Greeneville sank a Japanese fishing vessel off Hawaii after surfacing directly underneath it, killing nine. The submarine commander received a letter of reprimand after a Navy court of inquiry and retired from the Navy with his commission, causing an uproar in Japan.

More recently, pilots from the Illinois Air National Guard killed four Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan in an accidental bombing. The two pilots were charged with manslaughter, aggravated assault and dereliction of duty. The charges could have resulted in 64 years in prison.

But criminal charges against one pilot were dropped; he was reprimanded and allowed to retire. The second pilot was recommended for nonjudicial punishment, such as loss of pay, but refused the offer. He faces a court-martial on the dereliction charge.

'Damage control'

Drake, Nelson's lawyer, has predicted a "favorable outcome" but also tried to temper the Steeles' hopes.

"I think you need to prepare yourself and your family for the fact that your son is going to be discharged from the Army and he is going to spend some time in jail," he wrote July 29. "This case is not a matter of guilt; it's a matter of severity of punishment and damage control."

The Steeles still think Nelson is innocent except, perhaps, for his lies to investigators. Devout members of the Dundalk Presbyterian Church, they have five prayer chains going. A stack of letters attesting to Nelson's character have poured in from friends and relatives.

At their house, with a leafy sycamore in the yard and patriotic bunting on the porch, they have kept the American flag flying.

Nelson's attitude has evolved. He lamented that "it was a good life coming to me. Now it's all gone." But he also defended himself, saying that the Humvee was unsafe and the gunner had no harness, among other things.

"Charge me with reckless driving or crashing a Humvee, but not with murder," he wrote his parents in his latest letter. "I'm awake now and aware of what's going on."

Amanda Caldwell said she will withhold judgment on Nelson's guilt until trial. "All I can do right now," she said, "is miss my husband."

Nate Caldwell's mother said the Steeles are victims, too. But, she added, they still have Nelson. "As long as he's alive, they will have him. We have memories."

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