Army Pfc. Andre Craig Jr. of New Haven was killed when a bomb exploded near the convoy on which he was serving as a gunner in Baghdad. He was 24 years old and left an infant daughter.
NEW HAVEN -- The last time Pfc. Andre Craig Jr., called home, on Saturday, he told his mom he was exhausted. The 24-year-old infantryman had been on patrol all night, family members said.
"At least he talked to everybody before he died," Craig's former girlfriend, Rhea Knight, said Wednesday. Her eyes welled when she noted that she still had a record of his last call to her in her cellphone.
But family members said the call also left them unsettled, wondering whether the soldiers' exhaustion and the 24-hour watch Craig described had contributed to Craig's death.
"We believe that's why we lost Andre," said Erik Brown, Craig's godfather. "Had they been able to rest, Andre would be alive today."
An Army spokeswoman said no comment was available to the family's statements.
Brown served as a family spokesman while talking to reporters Wednesday. More than a dozen relatives stood behind him, many, like Brown, wearing T-shirts showing a photograph of Craig in uniform and the words "Dre-2007" and "In God We Trust."
Craig's mother and wife did not wish to speak with reporters, but relatives at the press conference outside a relative's home on Bassett Street held Craig's baby daughter, Taylor, who was born while he was in Iraq. She wore a white dress decorated with red and blue stars.
Craig returned home on leave last month, meeting Taylor for the first time and visiting with neighbors, who warned him to be careful in Iraq.
"Dre," as Craig was known, had long dreamed of joining the Army and also hoped to become a state trooper after his service, relatives and friends said. The Wilbur Cross High School graduate had hoped the Army would pay for his college education.
One of six siblings in a close-knit family, Craig served as a big brother figure to many children in the Hill neighborhood where his family lived, urging young people to stay out of trouble, residents there said.
Jonathan Craig, 20, recalled his big brother's love for clubbing and bowling, and the late-night phone calls from Iraq.
Seeing his daughter changed Andre, Jonathan said - he had a gleam in his eye, as if he suddenly had a new purpose in life.
But during his time home from Iraq, Jonathan said, Andre also seemed to have something on his mind, as if he knew something bad was going to happen.
Jonathan recited his brother's last words to him: "Take care of my daughter as if you were the father, until I come back."
Now the family will help raise Taylor, said another relative, Emerson Stevenson.
Craig had served about six months in Iraq, family members said. He joined the Army in October 2005 and served with the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, based in Fort Riley, Kan.
During phone calls home, Craig would report on the conditions in Iraq, Brown said, telling relatives and friends about feces in the streets and women being raped. Craig was happy to work to improve conditions, Brown said.
Brown said he had misgivings about the war, particularly with American soldiers in the midst of a civil war. But he always supported his godson's job there. "Andre was a soldier," Brown said. "He felt that he was doing the right thing."
It was ironic, said John Elliott, a family friend, that Craig had made it out of a tough neighborhood to do something positive, only to be killed doing it.
Craig was believed to be the first New Haven resident to die in Iraq. Since 2001, 39 servicemen and women with Connecticut ties have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Elliott, 26, said joining the military was a way for young people from the neighborhood to pay for higher education.
"That's our way of getting to college and doing something positive," said Elliott, who served six years in the Army.
Now, Elliott said, he advises other young people considering the same path to wait until the war is over. Or to consider loans, he said.
Knowing other people who served in Iraq and who came home made it easy to assume that Craig would too, he said.
"It's a big eye-opener for everybody," he said. "It's a shock."
Contact Arielle Levin Becker at email@example.com.