The seven U.S. Army soldiers resting on a road under Iraq's baking sun in January 2004 were, with the awareness of the intensifying insurgency, much like coiled rattlesnakes ready to strike.

The squad members — who were patrolling Mosul — sprang to their feet from their crouched positions with rifles ready when they saw a car rapidly approaching.

They moved up the sidewalks on the two-way street waving their arms to stop the driver.

Sgt. Matt Fernandes of Oakland, the squad leader, saw the driver was not heeding his soldiers, so he stepped directly toward the car.

When the potential attacker did not stop, the soldiers pelted the roadway in front of the car with warning shots until they were finally

forced to shoot the driver. Fernandes' bullets, evidence indicates, pierced the windshield andsank into the Iraqi's spinal cord.

Moments later, Fernandes, 23, watched the man's blood-soaked chest rise and collapse as he struggled to breathe. The life of the mustached, middle-aged Iraqi — who turned out to be a taxi driver in an unmarked car — expired before the sergeant's eyes.

"At the time I was angry. 'Why didn't you just stop?'" Fernandes said during a recent interview in Oakland. "I was just frustrated because that was something I didn't want to do. I didn't want to have to take somebody's life for no reason."

Certainly not Iraqi civilians, who with their kindness had seemingly cracked the window through which the decorated soldier views the world and penetrated his heart.


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Fernandes converted to Islam after his first of two tours in Iraq.

In March 2003, Fernandes was deployed with the 82nd Airborne Division from Fort Bragg, N.C., to Saudi Arabia for the invasion of Iraq. When the war began that month, the division's objective was to blaze through Iraq and seize Baghdad International Airport. But they got bogged down for weeks in the south.

In his fiercest battle, Fernandes' division fought Iraqi forces staged across the Euphrates river in Samawa. Lying on his stomach with his M-240B machine gun, Fernandes fired on Iraqis holed up in homes across the river in order to usher his comrades across bridges.

At one point, Fernandes scrambled up onto the balcony of a vacant home, putting himself in the line of enemy fire to get in better position for shooting.

"There were bullets snapping all around us," Fernandes said. "It was close. ... (The Iraqis' bullets) were impacting the wall, but luckily nothing ever hit us."

For this maneuver, Fernandes was awarded an Army Commendation Medal with valor device, and he advanced toward a promotion to sergeant in September 2003.

After the division blasted through this clot of resistance, the Americans streamed farther into the country, where Fernandes encountered excited children, who swarmed the troops.

But it was not until Fernandes was pumped into the chambers of Iraqis' homes on "overwatches" near Baghdad during his first deployment that he got a sense of what their hearts contained, he said. In an "overwatch," soldiers transform the top floor of an Iraqi home into a watchtower from where they may back up patrols or scan key roadways for insurgents planting roadside bombs.

Soldiers would knock on Iraqis' doors in the dark hours and present a card written in Arabic explaining their mission. The soldiers stayed in the homes for several hours at a time.

As a squad leader, it was Fernandes' job to put his finger on the pulse of a neighborhood, he said. He developed a rapport with the civilians and drew out information he could use to plan raids or patrols in the area.

"He was always real polite and respectful," said Matt Vaughn, a member of Fernandes' squad who is still in Iraq. "He would try to learn a new (Arabic) phrase here and there. That way he could try to communicate with them a little more."

Amid Fernandes' probing, the people remained amicable, he said. Although all avoided politics like verbal land mines, they talked with the sergeant about family, the other soldiers and their faith. Families even brought them tea or invited the squad for dinner.

"The first time around was really the first experience I've had with Muslims," Fernandes said. "Throughout the whole year I was there ... I was pretty impressed by the hospitality."

Fernandes returned from his first deployment in June 2004 and, during a visit to Lititz, Pa., learned that his father, Jerry Fernandes, once a devout Catholic, had converted to Islam.

The sergeant didn't strike out at his father upon learning the news. He calmly listened to the Vietnam veteran tell how he became curious about the faith when his son deployed to Iraq because he, like his son, had once been touched by Islamic hospitality. His father's good friend was a Muslim who had raised Jerry Fernandes for a short time when he was a teenager.

"I had to try to understand all this because all I was hearing was Islamic terrorist this, Islamic terrorist that," said the elder Fernandes.

The sergeant's curiosity was piqued, and he coiled his mind around Islam by interrogating his father further and reading up on the faith. He even went to his father's mosque and spoke with the imam, or prayer leader, about Islam.

Sgt. Fernandes converted to Islam in just one month after being drawn, in part, by the fact that the Quran, unlike the Bible, has never been revised. Now he is a strict Muslim.

Jerry Fernandes thinks his son's experiences with Iraqis played some role in his quick conversion, though the younger Fernandes downplays it.

"People perceive and understand with their heart before their mind," Jerry Fernandes said. "We're affected emotionally with our hearts, and then our mind comes along."

The younger Fernandes may not seem like someone who would accelerate down this road lined with threats to his relationship with other soldiers. With his stocky build, clean-shaven face and closely cropped hair, Fernandes projected the image of a hard-core soldier during the interview.

But Fernandes' life was shifting toward religion before Iraq. Soldiers at Fort Bragg generally hung out in bars to unwind, but not Fernandes, said John Bonecutter, Fernandes' Army roommate. Fernandes kept two bottles of liquor in their refrigerator for many months, Bonecutter said, as if to test his discipline. Instead of partying, Fernandes took classes on the weekends and volunteered at a local animal shelter.

"I wouldn't want to do that (go to school) because we were working all day, every day," Bonecutter said. "I wanted to relax on my Saturdays, but not Matt. He got up and went to school. He's pretty gung-ho."

Although Fernandes will pour out his thoughts about Islam when asked, he will not be the one to pop open the subject. He gradually told his mother, Theresa Noe of Oakland, and his religion was never revealed in his initial interview with a reporter.

Bonecutter only found out when he spied an audiotape of Quranic teachings once while riding in Fernandes' car. Word soon spread to the other soldiers.

"I guess I was kind of (a jerk) about it because I was just like, 'What the (expletive) are you thinking?'" Bonecutter said. "I felt really bad afterwards. And I was like ... 'I'm sorry. ... After all we've been through, I don't think me and you need to have beef over that kind of thing.'"

Nor did Fernandes want to have any unnecessary beef with Iraqis when he returned to Iraq in December 2004 for his second tour, in which he helped pave the road for the election of Iraq's interim government in January.

Many Iraqis, after all, had become his Muslim brothers. This time, on overwatches he ambushed Iraqis with news of his conversion and even prayed with them. After a day of battle, Fernandes often lost himself in Islamic books such as the Prophet Muhammad's biography, said Vaughn, his squad member.

Fernandes' reading not only offered him peace from war, but it likely helped soothe the wounds he received from some of his comrades' treatment of Muslims and comments about Islam.

"In my opinion, the attitudes of the American soldiers were worse towards the general population. You know, resentful, bitter, and it showed," Fernandes said.

It would have been natural if some soldiers had become engorged with venom.

Said Bonecutter: "I know it's not all of them, but when a couple of (Iraqis) shoot at you, you tend not to like them so much."

While Fernandes said his upbringing, which stressed tolerance, protected him from having ill will for the Iraqis, the little things American soldiers did that disrespected Iraqis seemed to penetrate Fernandes' armor and wound him deeply. He expressed irritation that soldiers would kick car doors shut after searches, flirt with Iraqi women or use racial slurs.

What hurt Fernandes the most, he said, were soldiers who boasted of their misdeeds inside Iraqis' homes, where he had been embraced.

"You get a large group of soldiers in there, and more times than not they just act a fool," Fernandes said. "And they'll be very disrespectful to somebody's property or to the inhabitants of the house. I've known of people stealing, breaking things in people's houses."

Fernandes did his best to keep his comrades from injecting their venom into Muslims. He instructed his squad on how to act toward Iraqis, and he punished those who behaved out of line, he said.

"He would definitely let you know when he didn't agree with you," Vaughn said.

After returning to Fort Bragg in March 2005 and being discharged from the Army in June, Fernandes came back to Oakland.

Fernandes has since taken classes at Merritt College with the goal of becoming a paramedic, and he has become involved with East Bay mosques. The road now before Fernandes seems a peaceful one. But he will only have to close his eyes and think about that awful day under the blazing Iraqi sun, and the images of that Iraqi man breathing his last breaths will come speeding back.