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More than work drew him to Iraq

Nick Berg was a big-hearted risk-taker - intent on making the world a better place, willing to do the heavy lifting to make that happen and daring enough to go almost anywhere to do it.

As his body arrived at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware yesterday, friends and co-workers recalled Berg, 26, as a good-natured, adventurous young man whose solo journey to war-torn Iraq was not exclusively for monetary gain.

That assessment was echoed by the White House: "Nick Berg wanted to build a free Iraq for the Iraqi people ... He was an innocent civilian seeking to help," spokesman Scott McClellan said.

President Bush also addressed the videotaped and Internet-posted beheading of Berg for the first time since his body was discovered Saturday near an overpass in Mosul in northern Iraq.

"Their intention is to shake our will. ... Yet by their actions they remind us of how desperately parts of the world need free societies. ... We will complete our mission," he said.

A fuller picture of the suburban Philadelphia businessman - a backer of Bush and a supporter of the war - emerged yesterday, with the release of e-mails that he had written during the first of his two trips to Iraq, one of which describes a damaged radio tower at Abu Ghraib prison.

Berg's father, a retired schoolteacher who opposes the war and sports an anti-Bush bumper sticker on his car, said in an interview with the Associated Press that U.S. officials are responsible for the abuse of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib that led - according to the executioners - to his son's death.

"Nick died for the sins of the Bush administration," Michael Berg said.

Dozens of news media vehicles were outside the Berg's split-level home in West Chester, Pa., yesterday, where a funeral director visited the family.

A private memorial service for Berg - limited to friends and family - is scheduled tomorrow afternoon, said Carl Goldstein, of Goldsteins' Rosenberg's Raphael-Sacks funeral home. "The family is very happy Nick is back in the United States," he said.

Berg, who operated a small communications company from his family's home, first went to Baghdad in late December, returning Feb. 1. In March, he returned to Iraq, but after having trouble finding work there, he told his parents that he would be home by the end of the month.

Detained in Mosul

On March 24, he was detained by Iraqi police in Mosul in a late night sweep. He was released on April 6 after his parents filed alawsuit in federal court in Philadelphia, contending that the U.S. military was illegally holding him.

U.S. officials say he was never in the custody of coalition forces. While in Iraqi police custody, they said, he was interviewed three times by FBI agents who were suspicious of his identity and warned that the country was too dangerous for unprotected Americans. He was offered a free flight home, but he declined, officials said.

But Hugo Infante, a Chilean reporter who got to know Berg in Baghdad, told Newsday that Berg recounted that Iraqi police had quickly handed him to U.S authorities in Mosul and that he had been held the entire time in a jail where U.S. soldiers were his guards.

Berg contacted his parents April 9, but he was not heard from again.

U.S. troops discovered his decapitated body Saturday.

A video posted Tuesday on a Web site linked to al-Qaida depicted the beheading by a group that said it was avenging the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers.

'An adventurous sort'

The youngest of three children, Berg attended Cornell University, Drexel University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Oklahoma. He didn't receive a degree from any of them, but he did find his niche - rigging and repairing telecommunications equipment, some of it hundreds of feet above the ground.

In 2000, he helped set up the electronics equipment at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia.

Two years ago, he formed a small company in Pennsylvania, Prometheus Methods Tower Service, named after a character from Greek mythology who stole fire from the gods and brought it to mortals for their use.

Acquaintances describe Berg as equal parts entrepreneur and good Samaritan. He liked lifting weights, enjoyed comedy and had a passion for taking modern technology to Third-World countries. Friends and family say Berg did volunteer work in Kenya and Ghana, where he taught villagers how to make bricks and drill for water.

"He was an adventurous sort. You kind of have to be if you're going to be climbing these big towers 500 to 1,000 feet up in the air, hanging only by a sling," said Walt Billings, a colleague of Berg's who, along with fellow employee Ed Bukont, turned down the Pennsylvania man's invitation to join him in Iraq.

Billings said Berg worked as a subcontractor for a division of his Baltimore-based company, Total Engine Service and Supply Co.

"He did tower work for radio and television stations. He went up the towers and did all the work associated with that," Billings said. "He knew his work was going to be in demand in Iraq, and that it was going to pay quite handsomely.

'On his own'

"We chose not to go just because of the deteriorating circumstances and concern for life and limb. It's a war zone. We saw it a little bit differently than Nick saw it.

"He wasn't attached to any particular company. He was there on his own," Billings said. "But it's not like he was bumming around looking for a job. He was a specialist in tower work, and one of the first contracts being released was for rebuilding of the radio station infrastructure. He wanted to be in the country, on the ground, when that work started to take off."

Because of increasing security concerns, though, the work never took off, leaving Berg in limbo, Billings said.

"It kept getting pushed back. I'm sure he wasn't hanging around because he wanted to hang around. I'm sure he was waiting for that opportunity to break."

Billings said Berg had done work for his company for about a year and a half. He said he had three jobs waiting for Berg once he came back.

Jeff Loughridge, chief engineer for Infinity Stations, based in Washington, also hired Berg for tower work.

"It started as a business relationship, but he became a very trusted friend," he said. "It takes a unique individual when you are having someone do work 500 feet in the air. You have to find someone you trust. They don't come along all the time, Nick was one of these people. I could trust him to do it top drawer."

E-mail from Iraq

When Berg helped install a communication system in Kenya last year, Loughridge said, he would send his clients e-mail about his adventures there and the work he was doing.

He continued that practice in Iraq.

"About Iraq ... I am taking photos - where allowed," he wrote during his trip in January. "It's actually pretty sad - I just got off one of two 320 meter monster towers in Abu Ghraib (also home to the main political prison) which use[d] to support most of Baghdad area's VHF and UHF. Both have been badly looted. ...

"I'll definitely share some of these pix with you and others next time I'm in the area - I'd love to put together a little presentation for SBE [Society of Broadcast Engineers] ... in about six months after I've been on every site and fixed some of them."

An active student

Berg graduated in 1996 from West Chester Henderson High School, where he was a member of the National Honor Society, and a semifinalist in the National Merit Scholarship Program, school officials said.

He played saxophone and tuba in the marching band and received its top awards, including the "John Phillip Sousa Award," for musicianship, leadership, character and dedication.

Starting at Pierce Middle School, he participated in Science Olympiad team competitions.

Michael DiBartolomeo, who was principal of Henderson when Berg graduated, called him "very bright," a "great citizen," and an involved and persistent youth.

"What I recall, if Nick had an issue with something going on in the school, he would come and tell me about it. If we agreed to disagree, he'd say, 'Mr. Bart, I am going to ask you about this every year.' He did it in such a nice, respectful way that you enjoyed hearing from him."

"He seemed like a really decent guy," said Josh Quinn, 30, bartender at Jitters Sports Bar in downtown West Chester.

"He told me he was going over there," Quinn said. "He didn't seem worried or upset. He was ready to go. He said, 'I'm going to Iraq. I'm going to do my duty.'"

West Chester resident Joe Hiddleson, 30, a building contractor, was among those puzzled by why Berg would want to go Iraq and why he would be chosen for execution.

"If it's retaliation, none of the prisoners had their heads cut off," he said. "He wasn't over there killing people. He was just a guy."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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