BISMARCK, N.D. – Though Sgt. 1st Class Shayne Beckert (search) is now safely home from Iraq, he finds his mind going back there late at night. What keeps him on edge is not the safety of his Army buddies. It's the fate of an Iraqi family he left behind.
Beckert formed a deep bond with an Iraqi man who became a reliable source of information about insurgent attacks. The man was gunned down in front of his son, and Beckert believes it was because he helped U.S. forces.
"I haven't slept over six hours a night since I've been back, just thinking about him," Beckert said recently as he pored over photos of Iraq with a fellow guardsman, Capt. Grant Wilz. "It's just something that's been nagging on my mind."
Now that they're back, the two guardsmen are undertaking one final mission — bringing the family of their slain friend to the United States.
"He became like a brother to us, and we wanted to make sure he and his family were safe," Wilz said.
They have appealed for help on radio talk shows and donned their desert camouflage for the local TV news. They've enlisted the help of their U.S. congressman, who says the Defense Department is ready to assist.
Now, Beckert and Wilz are focusing on raising enough money to buy the refugee family's plane tickets and cover their living expenses for their first six months in the country.
The guardsmen say they won't find peace until they succeed. It's a promise they made to their friend's wife.
"I told her I would do everything in my power to get her and her kids to safety," Wilz said. "I'm going to exhaust every effort I can."
The situation has become more frantic in recent days, with the family receiving new threats from terrorists and some relatives who don't want them to come to the United States, Wilz said.
Wilz said he spoke to the mother of the family on Thursday. "You can just hear she is anxious and very frightened," he said. "She's in hiding with family."
He's hoping to collect more money through a fund set up with Catholic Charities North Dakota (search) in Fargo, but says some costs may have to be covered with borrowed funds to get the family to the United States quickly.
Rep. Earl Pomeroy (search) has joined the cause, saying he believes fears about the family's safety are warranted.
"All of the stories about the terrible things done to collaborators and their families, I think, supports the notion that there's very good reason to be concerned about their safety," Pomeroy said.
The soldiers refuse to use the family's name publicly, fearful that terrorists will use the information to track down their friend's surviving relatives.
Beckert and Wilz say they first met the Iraqi family during regular patrols near their base in north-central Iraq. Wilz, a registered nurse, eventually offered some medical help when the family's mother was ill.
After that, the guardsmen say, the family patriarch began calling them to the home for meals, which sometimes included elaborate spreads of stuffed tomatoes, chicken and rice, and fresh dates "so sweet you could barely eat one," Wilz says.
They would sit and exchange small talk, finally ducking into a curtained rear room where the man would pass them handwritten reports detailing what he said were plans for terrorist attacks. The guardsmen say intelligence officials asked where they were getting the reports, but the man would meet only with them.
Wilz and Beckert say they had known the man for about six months when he was tracked down by a gang of insurgents who dragged him from his pickup and shot him dozens of times.
The guardsmen say their friend's killers also pulled the man's 11-year-old son out of the vehicle to make sure he saw it all.
"They were pretty cruel to put that picture in their son's head, that this is what happens when you help the Americans," Beckert said.
Wilz and Beckert have no doubt that the man's cooperation with U.S. forces spurred the killing, pointing to several previous attempts on his life. They say they pleaded with their ally to slow his attempts at gathering intelligence, but he always refused.
"He said to us all the time, 'I'm so worried about you guys.' We were thinking, 'We're so worried about you. You're out there all alone,'" Beckert said.
The man's family needs U.S. government permission to enter the country. Pomeroy says the Department of Defense has agreed to pursue the visa waivers.
Defense Department officials contacted by The Associated Press said they were not aware of the case and were unfamiliar with the process of bringing Iraqis to the United States.
Wilz and Beckert feel some responsibility for their friend's death, but they also believe that fate has given them a chance to help a family in need.
"I'm not saying that other people wouldn't do this," Wilz said. "I'm just saying that for some reason, Sgt. Beckert and I came in contact with this family."