Nov. 21, 2013 — -- Army Staff Sgt. Joshua Hedetniemi couldn't believe what he was hearing: Two al Qaeda terrorists had been arrested in a small town in Kentucky, right in America's heartland.
But it wasn't the 2011 arrests that caught the combat veteran's attention, but the offhand mention in a press report of a town in Iraq called Bayji, where the terrorists had operated before slipping into the States.
"It's an extremely small town and not very well-known," Hedetniemi told ABC News. But Hedetniemi knew it all too well.
He was just south of the town in 2005 when another group in his Pennsylvania National Guard platoon was hit by an improvised explosive device (IED) and attacked by small arms fire. The Americans managed to fend off the attack, but four soldiers died.
"So once I actually read the bulletin [about the Kentucky arrests]… the more research I did on it, I realized that these guys were operating in the same area that we were at the time we were attacked," Hedetniemi said. "It was more than a coincidence, I think it was fate that the news broke."
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Hedetniemi called the FBI to alert the Bureau to the possible connection, as did several other soldiers, according to a March 2012 report from The Philadelphia Inquirer.
He later learned, as ABC News reported in an exclusive investigation Wednesday, that FBI technicians had lifted fingerprints from parts of an IED recovered near Bayji at the time of the attack that belonged to one of the men who had resettled as a war refugee in Bowling Green, Ky. – some 750 miles from the Pennsylvania National Guard headquarters.
Though investigators could not conclusively prove that the terrorists had killed the Guardsmen in Iraq so many years ago, the U.S. attorney's office in Louisville eventually placed the surviving soldiers in its victim notification system for the case– officially linking the specific attack to the terrorists, who later pleaded guilty to terrorism-related charges and are now behind bars.
"It's impossible to put a face to the enemy in that kind of situation, especially on a night ambush… [and] you kind of want closure for yourself and the guys, and especially for the families who lost their loved ones," Hedetniemi said. "[Now] you're actually putting… a face to the enemy who was attacking you. That makes it more personal and much more real."
"It's still amazing. I think it's incredible that they were able to do that," Dan South, the only soldier in the Humvee struck by the IED to survive the 2005 attack, said of the FBI's sleuthing. "I kind of wish that we could have smoked him when it happened, but we didn't have that opportunity. So I guess this is second best."
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Pfc. Nathaniel Detample, Spc. John Kulick, Spc. Gennaro Pellegrini and Sgt. Francis Straub were killed in the 2005 attack near Bayji. South remembers each of them, quirks and all – the fast eater, the practical joker, the bad driver (South claimed 19-year-old Detample, reportedly an Eagle Scout and wrestler, crashed the Humvee more than once "not even outside the wire, but just going to get something").
"It's hard not to be close," South said. "It gets to the point where you could look through night vision goggles and look at someone's shadow and just tell by their mannerisms and the way they walked who they were. There are probably a lot of people who could say that about their spouse, so that just kind of shows you how close everyone is."
"Just remember, these guys were somebody's sons, and somebody's brothers and somebody's father and these guys murdered them," South said. "There's definitely some sense of justice. They [the men arrested in Kentucky] went from being free men to now they live in a federal penitentiary."
[Click on the soldiers' names to learn more about them from the MilitaryTimes' Honor the Fallen project: Pfc. Nathaniel Detample, Spc. John Kulick, Spc. Gennaro Pellegrini and Sgt. Francis Straub.]