Love and Death in Iraq
When the body of Spc. Kamisha Block was flown home to Texas, she was just one more casualty of the war in Iraq. But as her family started asking questions, they discovered that the truth behind Kamisha’s death was far more tragic than they possibly could have imagined.
A day after the remains of Specialist Kamisha Block came home from Baghdad, Jane Block went to the Memorial Funeral Home, in Vidor, Texas, a dirty-air dot on the map, 90 minutes east of Houston, deep in oil refinery territory and hard on the border with Louisiana. Jane wanted to make sure that Memorial’s undertakers would adequately prepare her daughter’s body for burial; the funeral service was going to be open-casket, and Jane wanted Kamisha to look the way she remembered her. Or at least as close as possible.
Although plenty of makeup had been applied to Kamisha’s head and neck, Jane saw something she did not expect to see: a large, dark coloration on the lower right side of Kamisha’s head. She thought the spot looked like a gunshot wound. That didn’t make any sense: Army officials had told the Block family that Kamisha had been the victim of “friendly fire” while stationed at Camp Liberty on the outskirts of the Iraqi capital. No one said anything about Jane Block’s 20-year-old daughter being shot in the head.
Two of those officials, in a tableau played out more than 4,000 times since George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq in 2003, had driven up to the Blocks’ well-kept double-wide trailer home in Vidor a few days before, late on the afternoon of August 17, 2007. Pulling into the driveway at the same time, Kamisha’s younger sister, Shonta, 18, followed them to the house, where they summoned her mother, Jane, a nail salon technician, and her father, Jerry, a Vietnam War veteran in his mid-60s. Kamisha, the Blocks were told, had succumbed to a single gunshot wound to the chest, a round tragically fired by a fellow U.S. soldier in what was cryptically described as a “non-combat-related incident.” Wailing with grief, Jane Block fled from the two strangers into her backyard.
But now, at the funeral home, examining the mark even heavy cosmetics couldn’t quite obscure, Jane was suspicious: What had really happened to her daughter?
So began Jane Block’s odyssey to discover the truth about Kamisha’s death, a quest that would take relentless badgering of officials in the army, the National Guard, even Congress. The truth was worse than the Blocks could have imagined: Kamisha hadn’t been killed by friendly fire on some dusty desert battlefield during a mission nobody could talk about; she had been murdered in the cramped metal trailer she’d occupied in Camp Liberty, shot not once in the chest, but five times. It would take a full half-year for the Blocks to uncover the facts behind a love affair gone abusively and tragically wrong, and the full extent of the army’s efforts to cover it up.
Truth, it is said, is the first casualty of war. And so it was with Kamisha Block, a young woman who saw the U.S. military as her ticket out of a career waiting tables at a chain restaurant in a backwater Texas town in the shadow of the I-10 interstate.
* * * *
As far back as 2003, when Operation Iraqi Freedom began, Kamisha Block was all for it, which wasn’t much of a surprise. There never was much anti-Bush sentiment in Vidor, a collection of 11,000 souls living in shotgun shacks and mobile homes. Though she had rarely left Texas, the curvy, loquacious teenager with the high cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes dreamed of becoming an FBI agent. Kamisha, who cut a striking figure with her constantly changing hair color, attended Vidor AIM (Achieving Individual Mastery) Center High School, an institution for students who struggle in traditional public schools. Kamisha didn’t date much; she’d attended her senior prom with a girlfriend. “Kamisha,” her mother says, “was very particular about her men.”
After graduating in 2005, Kamisha waited tables at the local Waffle House, where Vidorians stop daily for cheap coffee, a smoke, and a chat. Tips included, Kamisha cleared about $200 a week. Bored with the slow pace of life in Vidor, she decided to enlist in the army, determined to use it as a way to see the world, and then make a career in law enforcement. Hearing her daughter’s intentions, Jane Block cried for three days. “Mom, I’ve got my mind made up,” Kamisha announced. “Somebody has to do it. Freedom don’t come free.”
As a member of the Military Police, the 19-year-old was stationed for a year in Seoul, South Korea, where she peeled drunken soldiers off the streets and broke up fights in bars, even sustaining a stab wound in one altercation. Kamisha was proud of the silver badge she carried. According to a fellow MP, “Kamisha interacted very well, flirted, joked around, was never in a bad mood.” Shonta Block says, “Kamisha loved Korea—the food, the lights, the crowds, the big city.” It was her first time overseas.
Upon returning to the States in December 2006, Kamisha was assigned to the 401st Military Police Company, 720th Military Police Battalion, 89th Military Police Brigade, at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas, a 340-square-mile post of 53,000 soldiers located just off Interstate 190, about halfway between Austin and Waco. It was there that Kamisha caught the eye of Staff Sergeant Paul Brandon Norris.
About six feet tall, stocky, with soft blue eyes, Norris, then 30 years old, went by his middle name and wore his light brown hair cut in a high fade. Growing up in Cullman, Alabama, a farming town of 15,000 people, Norris loved to fish and play soccer. He joined the army in 1995 right out of Holly Pond High School and headed to Bosnia for the first of three short tours there. Other postings followed: at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. in 2001; at NATO headquarters in Brussels; in Germany in 2002; and later a year in Afghanistan and two tours in Iraq. His personal life was in disarray—Norris was going through a messy divorce, his two sisters had recently been killed in a car accident, and he was known to be prone to flights of anger. Still, Brandon Norris seemed exactly the brand of dedicated soldier the United States Army could rely on in dangerous wars around the globe.
The soldiers of the 720th knew they would soon be deployed to Iraq; that’s what the hours of grueling training at Fort Hood were preparing them for. So they enjoyed blowing off steam. One night, while still stationed in Killeen, a group of MPs met for a few beers at the Starlite Station, a two-level saloon and dance club that draws crowds of rowdy soldiers for its Military Appreciation Nights, held every Wednesday. Fellow soldiers recall Staff Sergeant Norris surveying the sea of gyrating females, fixating on one in particular. “Who is that?” Norris asked. “She’s got a helluva set of tits on her, huh?” Within 15 minutes, Norris was headed downstairs in pursuit of Kamisha Block. Norris worked fast. After standing on the periphery, he approached Kamisha as she left the dance floor. They sat down to talk for about 30 minutes, then left the club together.
It wasn’t long before rumors swept Fort Hood that Norris was breaking one of the most hard-and-fast regulations in the U.S. military: No messing around with female soldiers below your pay grade. Kamisha didn’t tell her parents much about Norris. To her friends, though, she expressed how much she liked the handsome man 10 years her senior. Amanda Buck, a Pfc. with the 4th Psychological Operations Group in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, heard only good things about Norris. Buck knew Kamisha’s mind well; they’d ridden the school bus together from kindergarten through high school.
Shortly before her scheduled deployment to Iraq in May 2007, Kamisha brought Norris home to meet her parents. It was a debacle. As Jane Block recalls, when Kamisha and her new boyfriend pulled up to the Blocks’ double-wide, Norris refused to go in, so Jane and Jerry came out, and everybody drove over to a local restaurant for a brief lunch. There Norris continued his odd behavior, speaking only when spoken to.
“Take care of her,” Jane Block said to Norris when they parted.
“Will do,” he replied.
The strange encounter sounded alarm bells. Back at Fort Hood, Kamisha began to get a sense of Norris’ consuming jealousy. One day, while packing up a truck, Kamisha had trouble lifting a box. A male corporal walked up to help and accidentally brushed her breast. According to a witness, an outraged Norris grabbed him by the collar and chewed out both the corporal and Kamisha. She complained to friends how “aggressive” Norris was with her, “in and out of bed.”
Besides verbal abuse, Jane Block says, Staff Sergeant Norris also allegedly began physically abusing Kamisha: “He first assaulted her at Fort Hood. A friend of Kamisha’s called me and said, ‘He grabbed her by the throat and shoved her against a wall.’” No charges were ever filed.
“Norris was high-strung,” recalls a fellow MP. “He was always shouting at soldiers.”
Before leaving for Iraq, Norris stopped briefly in Cullman, Alabama to visit relatives, including his wife, Eva, who’d flown in from California with their four-year-old daughter, Bella. The couple had separated years before, and their divorce was on the verge of being finalized.
One of Norris’ relatives recalls him mentioning Kamisha Block. “He said that legally they were not supposed to be dating, but that he loved her. He said she was a wonderful soldier and that he had so much respect for her. And then he told me that if something should happen to him, he wanted me to request that the military let her escort his body back to the United States.”
In May 2007, block’s company settled into Camp Liberty, three miles from Baghdad International Airport, not far from the worst of the fighting in Sadr City. Four years after the invasion of Iraq, life for the occupying forces was as bad as ever. Thanks to overcrowding due to the recent surge in manpower, Kamisha and her company were billeted in tents rather than barracks. Growing up in eastern Texas, Kamisha knew what it was like to breathe refinery fumes every day, but life in Iraq was unhealthy in a whole new way. Kamisha had to adjust to a new combination of pollutants: jet fuel, gasoline, sand, and dust 24/7. And that was before the shooting started.
Kamisha was made a driver, one of the most dangerous jobs available in Iraq. Whether behind the wheel of a truck or a Humvee, U.S. military drivers in Iraq are frequently ripped to shreds by roadside bombs and other IEDs. Some weeks Kamisha spent five or six days in the field, rattling around the desert in convoys, wondering if the next bump in the road would be her last.
About a month after arriving in Iraq, Block’s unit moved from tents to portable trailers at Camp Liberty. They were tiny, windowless metal boxes, barely 15×15, designed more as storage units than for housing. Two soldiers bunked in each trailer, so privacy was nonexistent. The rest of the camp had more to offer: The sprawling base, founded in 2003, was a self-contained American city on Middle Eastern soil, with a population as high as 15,000. Equipped with a state-of-the-art gym and a Pizza Hut, Liberty is a favorite stop for touring country music acts and the stars of the WWE. Insurgent-fired rockets drop on the base at all hours of the day and night, most of them kicking up harmless plumes of sand, but occasionally a blast leads to more U.S. casualties.
While the fighting dragged Kamisha down, it also fueled her patriotism. In one letter to her mom, Kamisha described the nature of the enemy she faced: “When they shoot at us, they don’t worry if you’re male or female, black or white or Hispanic. When they look at us, all they see is the American flag.” In another, she considered the prospect of her own death. “If I fall, I don’t ask to be honored or appreciated. I have earned something within myself, and that is something that can never betaken away from me.”
There are two things Kamisha apparently never discussed with her mother: how Brandon Norris kept harassing her and how she felt about the deteriorating relationship. Kamisha could talk about war, but not about the man who presented the gravest threat to her well-being.
Norris had arrived at Camp Liberty in late June, several weeks after Kamisha. Within days she found herself transferred to Norris’ 10-person squad. The word around Camp Liberty was that someone up the chain of command had done Norris a favor.
One day soon after the relocation from tents to trailers, a fellow soldier sat down with Kamisha for a smoke. The conversation came around to Norris. “You need to watch his temper, because I have seen him pissed, and it’s not pretty.” On several occasions, the soldier continued, Norris had flown off the handle about small matters, and it would be difficult to calm him down following these eruptions. Kamisha pulled on her Marlboro and didn’t say much. “She was nonchalant about the whole thing,” remembers the soldier. “She treated it like it didn’t matter.”
To those soldiers stationed under him, Norris seemed to have a knack for taking things too far. If Kamisha showed up somewhere on base, Norris more often than not appeared as well. “Every night, Norris would find some time to spend with Specialist Block, using the excuse that he ‘couldn’t sleep’ or that he had ‘a lot of problems and needed somebody to talk to,’” recalls one soldier in a sworn statement. “I made comments to Specialist Block’s old squad leader that he should do something or say something, to tell Staff Sergeant Norris the relationship was getting out of hand. The squad leader would laugh it off and say, ‘There’s nothing I can do.’”
Norris’ behavior took a toll on morale, already tenuous after the unit suffered a steady stream of injuries and fatalities. On July 15, 2007, a contingent of MPs, including Block and Norris, left Camp Liberty on a mission code-named “Gunfighter Surge” to train officers of the Iraqi police at one of their stations outside Baghdad. Several nights later, an IED destroyed a truck and injured three soldiers in one squad. The following day, an attack on a different squad left three soldiers dead. The company stood down for a few days. During that time a soldier approached Norris, saying, “Your relationship with Block is tearing the squad apart.” Norris said nothing and walked away.
Several days later, on July 23, a senior officer confronted Brandon Norris, who flatly denied dating Kamisha. That same day a platoon sergeant sat down with Norris to discuss the “inappropriate relationship” and the allegation, from senior leaders, that he was showing Kamisha preferential treatment. In that meeting the counselor, who observed that “staff sergeants don’t hang out with specialists,” issued a stern warning: “This relationship must stop immediately. Specialist Block will be reassigned to 1st Squad, and if you have any business that needs to deal with Spc. Block, you will use the chain of command or the NCO [noncommissioned officer] support channel.” Norris now knew the stakes of continuing his pursuit of Kamisha Block: He could be booted from the army he loved and earn an “under other than honorable conditions discharge,” which could cost him benefits and eligibility for the G.I. Bill.
Norris seemed to shift his anger from potential rivals toward Kamisha herself, who, friends say, wanted to break things off with her increasingly hostile boyfriend. In the first week of August, Norris upbraided Kamisha publicly, as she stood by her Humvee talking with a male soldier. Norris rushed up to her. “What are you doing hanging around him?” he screamed, grabbing Kamisha by her right arm. When she tried to move away, Norris shouted, “Don’t walk away when I’m talking to you!”
“You’re not supposed to grab other soldiers like that,” the male soldier protested.
“You need to stay out of this,” a seething Norris replied. “This is between an NCO and a soldier.”
* * * *
Mentally and physically spent after a weeklong mission in northern Iraq, Kamisha dumped her filthy gear in corner room #15-255-C, the metal box she shared with another female soldier, Danielle Jennings, at Camp Liberty. It was August 15, 2007, a few days before Shonta’s 19th birthday. Kamisha placed a call home to Vidor and spoke with her sister for a few minutes. Later, as Kamisha headed to the showers, a soldier inquired about Brandon Norris. After all the crap she’d taken from him, Kamisha seemed resolute. “Shit’s gonna change,” she said.
Meanwhile, Norris appeared at a base hospital, complaining of “a possible heart problem.” At a platoon meeting that afternoon, according to other soldiers, Norris seemed out of sorts, distant; he paid little attention to the briefing that was under way.
Around 5:40 p.m. the next day, Brandon Norris knocked on the door of Kamisha’s trailer. With a blank look in his eyes, he asked Kamisha’s roommate, Danielle Jennings, if he could be alone with Kamisha. Jennings grabbed her tennis shoes and cigarettes and stepped outside.
According to the investigative report, what happened next took place too fast for Jennings to immediately respond. First she heard a barrage of profanities yelled by Norris, followed by a volley of gunshots. Throwing open the door in a panic, Jennings found Kamisha kneeling on her bed, physically unharmed but sobbing hysterically, while Norris stood over his cowering girlfriend, his 9 mm Beretta aimed at point-blank range. In an apparent effort to terrorize the young woman who had rejected him, Norris had fired into the metal walls of her quarters, the gunshots echoing in the tight confines of the trailer.
“Staff Sergeant Norris, what the fuck are you doing?” Jennings shouted.
Norris wheeled and pointed the Beretta at Jennings, who jumped behind a nearby barrier, then ran for help. It was too late. Inside trailer #15-255-C, Norris unloaded, shooting Kamisha Block five times, including rounds to her shoulder, chest, and head. Then, as his girlfriend lay on the floor of her trailer mortally wounded, Brandon Norris turned the gun on himself, putting a single bullet into the right side of his head. Medics who arrived minutes later found Norris dead at the scene and Kamisha, her pulse weak, wheezing, with a sucking chest wound. Blood had darkened her tan T-shirt. A few minutes later at Camp Liberty Troop Medical Clinic, Kamisha Jane Block was pronounced dead.
On August 23, after Kamisha’s body was flown back to Texas, a funeral procession traveled from Southeast Texas Regional Airport through Vidor. Seventy-five members of the Texas Patriot Guard Riders, a veterans motorcycle group, led the way. The motorcade moved along U.S. 69 to Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway and then north onto Vidor’s Main Street. Hundreds of people lined the route carrying American flags. Others came out of their homes and businesses to watch, silently.
Five days later Brandon Norris, who spent 12 years serving his country, was buried next to his sisters in Cullman, Alabama. On the day his widow received two footlockers full of personal effects from Iraq, Eva Norris posted a message to her husband’s guest book on legacy.com. “I can’t stop crying, it’s so painful,” she wrote. “Bella started to cry today on the way home from school, that she wanted her daddy because I told her Daddy’s things came home…The last time I talked to him, two days before he died, he said, ‘Make sure Bella knows who her father is,’ and I said, ‘Of course I will. You are the only father she has and will ever have.’”
* * * *
Two days before Kamisha Block’s funeral, the Associated Press ran a story about her death, stating that, according to military officials, she died in “a non-combat-related incident.” It was the same story told to the Block family, one that might have stood had Jane Block not noticed the poorly concealed gunshot wound on the side of her daughter’s head. A day or two after laying Kamisha to rest, Jane Block called Patricia Unsell, a Texas National Guard master sergeant who’d been assigned to help the Blocks with funeral arrangements and to make sure Kamisha’s belongings in Iraq made it back to Vidor.
“I think Kamisha was shot more than once,” Jane told her.
“Do you want me to find out for you?” Unsell asked. “Do you really want to know?”
“I have to know,” Jane replied.
Unsell contacted army investigators in Iraq and reported back a few days later: Kamisha had been shot five times by fellow soldier Brandon Paul. Jane and Jerry puzzled over this new information. “This just doesn’t sit right,” Jane told Jerry. “What kind of a last name is ‘Paul’?” Jane called Unsell yet again and demanded the killer’s full name. It was Paul Brandon Norris. Jane gasped. “Once I found out it was him, I knew it was murder,” she recalls.
Though Jane Block, through her own determined pursuit, now knew the basic facts about her daughter’s murder, it would be six months before the army revealed significant details of its investigation into the killing. “Every hour that we waited,” Jane says, “felt like a year.”
While the Blocks chose to keep the truth about Kamisha’s death quiet throughout the agonizing half-year that they awaited the report, they never stopped pressing the authorities. As Jane recalls, “It drove us crazy. When we talked to one person, they’d tell us something, and we’d talk to another, and they’d tell us something else. And then we get the report, and half of it is blacked out. I was very angry about that.”
The contents of the army’s investigative report pertaining to Kamisha Block’s death have never been publicly revealed until now. Issued by the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command, the report was FedExed to the Block home in Vidor in February 2008. The names and ranks of witnesses and CID agents are redacted, and some investigative files have been inexplicably withheld, including the results of a toxicology screen conducted on Brandon Norris’ body.
The army’s report does not draw many conclusions about Kamisha’s murder, though it does shed some light on what may have sent Norris over the edge. In 2007 he told a family member he hadn’t slept more than two hours a night in over a year. Investigators found what appeared to be anabolic steroids in his footlocker, which may explain his mood swings. Also in the footlocker were mementos of the affair, including a five-page letter from Norris to Kamisha in the event he was killed in combat (excerpted on p. 76). The letter paints a portrait of a man hopelessly and obsessively in love.
But beyond these clues, the interviews conducted by the Army Criminal Investigation Division in Iraq, Texas, Alabama, and elsewhere seemed, to the Blocks, to be cursory and half-hearted. Many of the witnesses claim they never knew of an affair. “The army was more worried about the romantic relationship than what they were going to do about Norris,” Jane Block says. “All questions were about the relationship, not about how he was hurting Kamisha, mentally and physically.”
Now that the Blocks had at least some of the details, they were ready to take Kamisha’s story public. “Between the funeral and the six months we were waiting, the local media kept calling, wanting to know what happened and how,” Jane says. “After the report came, I finally called them. I figured if this is the way the army wants to treat us, I’m gonna let people know about it.” The Blocks went to SETX, the local Fox affiliate, and then the local paper, The Beaumont Enterprise, picked up the story.
By the summer of 2008, as the truth of Kamisha’s death spread, a sense of outrage emerged over the army’s failure to protect one of their own—and their efforts to cover it up. On military message boards such as PatriotGuard.org and Forums.Military.com, angry commenters lashed out (“Calling this ‘friendly fire’…was a bald-faced lie intended to quiet the fact that the army didn’t protect this woman.”) In the meantime, Kamisha’s cause had been taken up by Congressman Kevin Brady, a sixth-term Republican who represents the 8th District of Texas.
Last fall Congressman Brady sent a letter to Gordon S. Heddell, the inspector general of the Department of Defense. In it Brady expressed the Block family’s dissatisfaction with the army’s report and drew Heddell’s attention to the fact that certain parts were withheld. The letter, which stressed the Blocks’ allegation that the army had ignored the abuse of their daughter, also included the names of soldiers who’d known Kamisha and Norris but were not interviewed as part of the probe. In late October, Heddell agreed to conduct a fresh investigation. It was a major victory for Jane and Jerry Block.
“The army’s initial handling of Kamisha’s death has brought much added pain to her parents, who are decent, good-hearted people who just want some answers,” says Congressman Brady. “Jerry and Jane simply don’t believe the report is complete, and I can understand why. We just want to get to the bottom of this.”
Sitting with her husband in their living room in Vidor, with its care-fully arranged shrine to their daughter’s life and service, Jane is finally gaining some closure. The Blocks still have questions, and they want accountability. With this new investigation they may finally get it. “Kamisha did not get the protection she needed,” says Jane. “The army wants us to forget the whole thing. They’re at fault. I want somebody to admit to mistakes, and I want somebody to be held responsible.”