Flagstaff GI loved people, languages
Republic Flagstaff Bureau
Sept. 18, 2003 12:00 AM
FLAGSTAFF - Friends say Army Spc. Alyssa R. Peterson of Flagstaff always had an amazing ability to learn foreign languages.
Peterson became fluent in Dutch even before she went on an 18-month Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints mission to the Netherlands in the late 1990s. Then, she cruised through her Arabic courses at the military's Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., shortly after enlisting in July 2001.
With that under her belt, she was off to Iraq to conduct interrogations and translate enemy documents. Then, for reasons still being investigated, Peterson became the third American woman soldier killed since the war began on March 19. President Bush declared the end of major combat operations on May 1, but clashes have continued, and more than 150 U.S. soldiers have been killed since then. Since hostilities began, 297 U.S. soldiers have died.
Peterson, 27, died of a gunshot wound to the head Monday from what was described as a "non-combat weapons discharge," said Martha Rudd, an Army spokeswoman. The fatality occurred near the northwestern Iraqi town of Tel Afar, about 50 miles southwest of the Turkish border.
Rudd and other Army officials said that a number of possible scenarios are being considered, including Peterson's own weapon discharging, the weapon of another soldier discharging or the accidental shooting of Peterson by an Iraqi civilian.
Whatever the reason, Peterson's death sent shock waves through Flagstaff, a mountain city about 78 miles from Tuba City, the home of Army Pfc. Lori Piestewa, who died during the opening days of the conflict. The third woman soldier killed in Iraq was Army Sgt. Melissa Valles of Eagle Pass, Texas, in July.
Throughout the day Wednesday, a steady stream of visitors brought flowers and food to Peterson's parents' home, nestled in a pine grove and surrounded by a white picket fence, in southwest Flagstaff.
A large poster with the words "Support our troops" and a U.S. flag were on the indoor sill of a large picture window. The Peterson family refused to be interviewed by reporters.
In a statement read by LDS Bishop Kevin Stephens, the family said, "We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of our daughter and sister while performing an important work for all Americans."
Peterson was transferred to Fort Campbell, Ky., in July before being sent to the Middle East shortly thereafter. She was assigned to C Company, 311th Military Intelligence Battalion of the 101st Airborne Division, Rudd said.
Peterson graduated from Northern Arizona University in May 2001 with a bachelor of arts degree in psychology, said Gary Fox, an NAU spokesman.
During her time at NAU, Peterson also attended the Flagstaff Institute of Religion, a theological training center for members of the LDS faith.
"She was a quiet, very intelligent woman who asked a lot of good questions about life and religion," said Terry Leisek, one of Peterson's instructors at the institute.
Leisek said Peterson insisted on going on an LDS mission at age 21 after she had completed three years of NAU undergraduate course work. She came back to Flagstaff in 2000 to complete her final year on the undergraduate level. Peterson also had taken graduate-level courses at NAU, Leisek said.
"She was a very very good lady who will be missed by a large number of friends," Leisek said. "She loved languages and she loved people."