FORT CARSON, Colo. (AP) _ First Sgt. Daniel Hendrex was getting ready to leave the war when he went to see the Iraqi teenager one last time. He roused the boy from sleep and gave him his floppy camouflage hat and a promise.
Stay safe, Hendrex said. We will do what we can to get you out of here.
The 13-year-old clutched the hat and held out his arms. They hugged, teary-eyed. And then Hendrex was gone.
It had been four months since the skinny, street-smart Iraqi blurted out to American soldiers at a border checkpoint in Husaybah, Iraq, that he wanted to turn in an insurgent _ his father.
The 100 Army soldiers of Fort Carson, Colo.-based Dragon Company, 1st Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, had seen informants before. Some were helpful, but many just wanted reward money.
Something was different about this one, though. He was willing to turn in his own father.
With that one decision, the teenager's life, so full of horror and abuse, would change forever, and so would the lives of the soldiers around him.
He became an informant, giving the soldiers the best information they had yet.
He ate with them, slept next to them, dressed like them.
They protected him like a brother.
And now they were leaving him.
He was known as Steve-O to the soldiers; the Army keeps his real name confidential, to protect him. He grew up in Husaybah, a town of about 100,000 near the Syrian border. The oldest of his three brothers and two sisters, Steve-O and his siblings lived with their parents in a small, dirt-floor house.
His father was once an army captain in the Republican Guard, the core of the Iraqi military. His father beat him and Steve-O's body bears the scars.
His left eye is misaligned, a result of his father kicking him in the head. Once, his father took a red-hot spoon and pressed it on top of Steve-O's left hand.
``My father,'' the teen said, rubbing the scar.
After America invaded Iraq in March 2003, his father led a 40-man insurgency group. The beatings, Steve-O said, got worse, and his father became withdrawn.
``He would sit by himself. If I would go talk to him, he would hit me, beat me up,'' Steve-O said through an interpreter. ``He wouldn't let anyone come near him.''
His father wanted him to fight the Americans.
Steve-O, who only has a third-grade education, tried to run away to Fallujah, but was caught and reluctantly accompanied his father on four missions.
He couldn't bring himself to fire the AK-47 his father had given him, so he would hide, once in a stream, as American soldiers passed by him. They didn't seem so bad. He had seen soldiers giving candy to Iraqi children, and they had never done anything to him.
He knew he couldn't tell his father that. So, he would empty the ammunition from the rifle and tell his father he shot Americans.
``My father was very happy. He was very pleased. He gave me money,'' Steve-O said.
Steve-O feared for his life and those of his brothers and sisters.
One day last December, Steve-O told his family he was going to Syria to find work. Instead, he walked to the border checkpoint, where Dragon Company was stationed, and said he wanted to turn in his father. He told them he had information on a 40-man insurgency cell and knew where a weapons cache was.
First, he asked to be arrested, so no one would suspect he was a traitor.
The soldiers, not sure what to think, complied, handcuffing the teen and putting a sandbag over his head.
The tank company was the only U.S. force in the area and was being attacked up to 10 times a day.
But the soldiers were leery.
``My thought was, he very well could be setting us up for an ambush,'' said Capt. Chad Roehrman, 29. ``That's always one of the concerns _ they're baiting us into something.''
Steve-O started naming names, and some matched names on a wanted list the soldiers had.
Maybe Steve-O was the real deal.
Either way, they would find out during the raid that night.
Two tanks and two Humvees carrying about 20 soldiers headed out into the town. Steve-O rode in a Humvee, wearing fatigues the Army lent him and a black ski mask so he wouldn't be recognized.
The teen was nervous. Briefly, he wondered about his father.
When they arrived at Steve-O's house, his father and a Syrian man were there, along with Steve-O's mother and siblings. Both men were blindfolded and arrested.
The teen pointed to an empty lot next to his home, and the soldiers and Steve-O started digging. Rockets, grenades, a land mine and a weapons system were all there.
``It was great intelligence,'' said Hendrex, 35. ``What it really did was validate Steve-O's story.''
Steve-O was legit.
A few days later, Steve-O, who slept on a cot on base, asked to see his mother.
He went home in the morning, but quickly returned and told soldiers his mother had been beaten. She told her son she had a week to turn him over to an insurgent or his family would be killed.
``She said, they know it was you and you're the one who turned everybody in,'' Hendrex said the teen told him.
Go back to the Americans, Steve-O's mother told him. She knew what would happen to him if he stayed.
Several days later, Hendrex was going through pictures of captured insurgents while Steve-O sat nearby.
Steve-O casually looked at the computer screen and said he knew the person. He did it repeatedly, naming insurgents as Hendrex clicked through the pictures.
Steve-O had connected the dots. He seemed to know everyone in the town, what they did and where they lived. He knew from the highest levels to the lowest. His father had taken him to numerous insurgent meetings, and Steve-O had soaked up everything he heard.
``He knew who was bad and who wasn't,'' Hendrex said. ``He probably ID'd that day 20 people.''
Other soldiers were still skeptical.
``How much can he really know?'' wondered Sgt. Roy Johnson, 31.
But, as they would come to find out, Steve-O would become their most successful informant.
Steve-O was barely 5 feet tall then, and in the crowded Humvee, he rode between the legs of the gunner, watching out the window for people he knew. He went on 20 missions and raids with his new American friends, several times coming under attack.
``Mujahadeen! Mujahadeen!'' he would yell, tugging on the pants of the gunner when he saw an insurgent.
He spoke only Arabic, so a translator usually traveled with him.
The squadron that was usually attacked up to 10 times a day was now only attacked two to three times a week.
On one raid near his mother's home, soldiers stopped to give her money. They told her to take her children and leave Husaybah the next day.
Eventually, some 40 insurgents were caught by Steve-O identifying them and the soldiers comparing the information to their own.
Steve-O was happy living with the soldiers. They were all he had.
The Americans were getting to know the Iraqi so willing to help them. They taught him to play football and English words for ``cot'' and ``blanket.'' They watched movies together, played video games and wrestled.
Steve-O still wore his too-big fatigues, just like the soldiers, and even got his dark hair cut like them. He was eager to help the cooks, take out trash, sweep floors.
The soldiers couldn't help but smile at his big, silly grin.
``He was one of us,'' Roehrman said.
In late February, while on a mission near Steve-O's home, the teen wanted to make sure his mother and siblings had left.
Steve-O stayed in the Humvee while Hendrex went inside.
The tiny, three-room house had been ransacked. Rotten food was on the stove, furniture was overturned and a rancid smell permeated the air.
An uncle said Steve-O's mother had been shot in the stomach, killed by the same insurgent who threatened to kill the family. The children had made it to Fallujah.
Hendrex, a 14-year Army veteran whose wife is pregnant with their first child, was closest to Steve-O, always making sure he was with him. He was his protector, a big brother, even a surrogate father to the teen.
Early the next morning, Hendrex took Steve-O and the translator outside base headquarters and told the teen his mother was dead.
Steve-O tried to keep his emotions in check, but tears rolled down his face. Hendrex embraced the teen and cried with him.
By late March, Dragon Company was preparing to hand off the area to Marines. Hendrex and Roehrman, now with another company, were already trying to figure out what to do with Steve-O. Hendrex hoped to bring him to the United States.
They contacted the U.S. embassy in Kuwait, inquiring about political asylum, humanitarian parole or relocation to another country, but Steve-O's options were running out.
Dragon Company was going home to Fort Carson, and he would have to stay behind. The Marines agreed to take care of the teen, but that was only temporary.
Hendrex told him: ``We have to leave, but we will not forget you. I will try until the end of my days to get you out of here. Do not lose faith in us.''
Hendrex gave Steve-O the note promising to get him out of Iraq, and his floppy hat with ``Hendrex'' stitched in the back, in English and Arabic. Keep it, he said, until we see each other again.
Hendrex didn't know if that would happen.
Steve-O stayed with the Marines, but didn't go on any more missions because it was too dangerous.
``You have this emptiness because you left one guy,'' Hendrex said.
Once back in Colorado in April, Hendrex contacted congressmen, the office of the secretary of defense, the Army surgeon general's office, news reporters, anyone who would listen.
Months passed without any word.
Steve-O never lost hope. He trusted Hendrex, the man he calls ``my brother,'' and believed he would come for him.
``I've been with them for so long,'' said Steve-O, who dreams of joining the U.S. military and becoming a doctor. ``These guys never lie to me, they never hurt me.''
Finally, Hendrex learned Steve-O would be granted a special parole to come to the United States for a medical evaluation and intelligence debriefing. Beyond that, the military is reviewing options. Several Arabic-speaking families have volunteered to adopt Steve-O, and Dragon Company has been raising money for his education.
Steve-O's father remains in jail, as does the man who reportedly killed his mother. The teen doesn't know the fate of his brothers and sisters.
Just weeks ago, Hendrex got the call he had waited for for six months. He traveled to Frankfurt, Germany, and met Steve-O as he stepped off the plane, holding Hendrex's hat and the note.
The next night, before Steve-O went to the East Coast for his evaluation, the soldiers of Dragon Company gathered at the Colorado Springs Airport to welcome the Iraqi teenager who had done so much for them and had become part of their company.
He was 14 now, and had grown taller and more muscular. But here he was, in America, flashing that infectious smile.
The last member of Dragon Company was finally home.