38 Days: One Soldier's Story

A slain soldier's diary gives insight into his life in Iraq.

Nov. 27, 2008 — -- All Doris Santos had of her son, Cpl. Jonathan Santos, was the last letter he sent home before he died in October 2004.

"This is Jon's last letter home, received two days after he was killed. 'Dear mom,'" Doris began reading. "'Everything is going good here. I just wanted to say hi and I am doing OK, tell everyone I am sending greetings from Iraq.'"

The letter served as the final words from her 22-year-old son, who died in Karabilah, Iraq, a mere 38 days after he arrived and with only seven months left to serve in the military.

But, as Doris would soon discover, the Bellingham, Wash., native had so much more to say about his life and deployment.

Unexpected Arrival

She learned that when she received her son's trunk. The surprise delivery arrived at her home and was filled with his boots, an assortment of home movies and a little green diary at the bottom. The soldier had documented so much of his life abroad.

The first 37 days of his diary reflected the harsh realities of serving in Iraq.

"Things got ugly. An Iraqi man was killed," he wrote on day 26.

He also had five videos filled with candid moments from his deployments in Haiti and Iraq. It was the story of his last 38 days.

"I really miss home. I really miss you guys. I'm bald -- you can see that. It sure is hot here," Jonathan said in one tape.

He didn't just film himself. He also took images of friends, including Sgt. Michael Owen, a 12-year Army veteran; Pvt. Matthew Drake, a sports nut who played soccer and dreamed of becoming a physical therapist; and Marine Cpl. William Salazar, a combat photographer with an artistic bent, who played the trumpet and recorded a CD.

Final Days

As time passed, according to the diary, the men's friendship grew closer and Jonathan dreamed of life beyond the war's daily grind.

"I make this vow -- this time next year, I will be living in Los Angeles and be truly, completely, and totally happy," he wrote in his diary.

On Sept. 23 he turned 22 and marked that, too, in his diary.

Each page is filled daily until Oct. 15, 2004. That page is blank because on that day an insurgent vehicle loaded with explosives crashed into Jonathan's humvee, killing him, Salazar and Owen.

Drake was the lone survivor, but suffered a massive head wound.

A Mother's Memoir

As a grieving mother, Doris wanted to know the whole story of her son's final hours and mission. She reached out to Drake and his mother, Lisa Schuester.

"Matthew is still here but he is not exactly the man he was," Schuester said.

Doris also wanted to get to know the mothers of the two other young men killed alongside her son, and persuaded the mothers of the four friends to meet.

"There is no difference in our grief. It's absolutely painful," Doris said. "There is nothing in the world that is going to bring our boys back, but we have each other."

The women did meet and Doris gave Owen's mother one final memento -- the sergeant's combat boots, which had been packed with Jonathan's things.

"It was probably the best gift I could have had," said Owen's mother, Kay Hutchinson.

A one-hour documentary called "The Corporal's Diary" tells Jonathan's story. Click here to learn more.