"He was starting to finally come to life," Gorsline said. "He could see an end to all of it."

Lufkin crashed again during the second surgery, with the same symptoms as before, but this time doctors couldn't revive him. Gorsline was doing a crossword puzzle in the lobby when a team of doctors and counselors invited her into a private room, then said her son had gone into cardiac arrest on the operating table. In that room, she said, they cried with her.

The doctors never explained how he had died, and an autopsy report the family asked for later offered little clarity. During surgery doctors performed an echocardiogram that indicated that Lufkin had an air bubble in his heart - a rare occurrence, often caused by problems with a catheter in the veins. But a cardio-thoracic surgeon who was called cut into Lufkin's pulmonary artery in search of another clot, even after being shown the echocardiogram.

No clot was found, the records say, and pathologists ruled his death "consistent with an air embolus" but never performed tests to confirm it. Lufkin's official cause of death was "complications of blast injuries," according to the autopsy report.

"To say 'complications of blast injuries,' that's just a worthless statement that obscures what the real cause of death is," said Dr. Joseph I. Cohen, a former New York City medical examiner and now chief forensic pathologist in Riverside, Calif. "It sounds like they don't have an answer."

"No one's ever been able to explain to me how someone so young and so healthy could die of a heart attack like that," said Gorsline, a cardiac-care nurse.

Lufkin, like Mahaffee and many soldiers killed in Iraq, was awarded the Bronze Star at his funeral, a medal given for bravery, heroism and meritorious service. Firetrucks from the surrounding towns used their ladders to form an arch over his funeral procession, and family members stood for 10 hours shaking hands in front of his casket.

UUnder the flag

His mother selected a grave site next to the flagpole at the municipal cemetery in Knoxville, Ill., because it is illuminated 24 hours a day and because she heard the flag snapping in the wind as she walked around the site with the funeral director.

"I looked up and saw that flag flying and said, `I want him right here, right under that flag,'" Gorsline said. "He died for that flag, and everyone who comes here will hear it flapping in the wind."

The Sun made repeated requests with the Army to interview Lufkin's doctors at Walter Reed or view the official records about Lufkin's and Mahaffee's injuries and deaths, but each request was either denied or did not get a response. The only information available publicly says the same thing about the two soldiers - that they died of injuries received when an improvised explosive device detonated near their vehicles.

robert.little@baltsun.com