At night, Marine Lance Corporal Annie Dryden would sing to her unit in hopes of blunting the anxiety of Iraq.
Fellow soldiers at the Al-Asad airfield called the 22-year-old North Canton native the "Fiery Angel" because she was tough and sweet. A product of Camp Pendleton in California, she had trained as a packaging specialist, part of a logistics group with the base's I Marine Expeditionary Force. The former GlenOak cheerleader and choir member told relatives back home that, with the Marines, she had finally found her calling.
One day in October 2008, two months into her tour in Iraq's notoriously bloody Anbar province, the feisty Dryden wanted to try out some new grappling techniques, according to the story of a sailor who was also stationed on the base. It led to an impromptu wrestling match between the two, and Dryden came away from it with an injury.
She told her friends that evening that she had a knot on the back of her head, The Canton Repository later reported. In a conversation with her mother, she mentioned the wrestling but not her injury — an apparent attempt not to worry her family.
But a numbing grief settled over North Canton when news came home that the Fiery Angel had been found dead in a portable latrine on the base the very next day. Her death, it was reported, stemmed from a non-combat-related injury.
"Lance Corporal Annie Dryden was a brave Marine who dedicated her life to the preservation of our nation's freedom," California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said at the time. "She loyally served her country with pride and honor, and her sacrifice will not be forgotten."
The Dryden family's dealings with the military over the months that followed, however, would lead to uncertainty about how their daughter was actually killed.
Annie's divorced mother and father, Thea and Scott Dryden, were each told by the Marine officials at their door that Annie had been involved in a friendly wrestling match with a U.S. Navy sailor who was stationed on the base, and that she died from an inadvertent injury suffered as a result of their play. To Thea, the story closely matched what her daughter had told her on the phone the night before her death.
Further details were scarce, but the Drydens were assured that a full investigation was under way by the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS).
Eight months later, Annie's death was ruled a homicide. According to the accounts of eight eyewitnesses, she had hit her head on concrete.
Thea Dryden chose to move on.
"I know there was no malicious intent," she told The Repository in July 2009, when results of the investigation were revealed. "We, the family, are in agreement that no charges be brought against the young man involved and that he should feel no guilt ... we ask that we be permitted to mourn in peace and private, and that we not be contacted."
It was also in July 2009 that Thea Dryden paid a visit to her ex-husband's house.
"Don't talk. Don't give any information out," Scott Dryden remembers her telling him.
He doesn't know why she demanded his silence, but he suspects that Marine officials were pressuring her not to speak out. (Thea Dryden did not respond to interview requests for this story. According to Scott, she refuses to speak with the media about their daughter.)
Scott, too, had been cautioned not to speak by members of the Marines' Casualty Assistance Officers, the group charged with breaking news of a soldier's death and assisting in funeral arrangements. The pressure started at Annie's wake and funeral, he says.
"They said, 'Don't tell anyone anything or give anyone anything about this. We'll take care of this,' is what they said," he recalls through his smoke-stained voice. "I felt threatened over it."
Scott, a self-described "hard-working biker" who rides a Harley and sports a closetful of black leather, spent his career as a machinist. He's a low-key man, not easily exited — but he was dubious of the Marines' story, that Annie would have been playfully wrestling with a sailor who outweighed her by 100 pounds.
But when Scott contacted NCIS seeking closure, he was met instead by a different version of events leading up to his daughter's death than the one the Marines had previously shared.
In a phone conversation with a female NCIS investigator, he learned that on the day before Annie died, she had been spending downtime with other Marines and a group of U.S. Navy sailors when one sailor snarled, "Marines ain't shit" at them.
Enraged, Annie rushed the sailor. "I'm going to show you what a Marine is!" she shouted, and proceeded to knock the much larger rival to the ground.
According to the investigator's account, the sailor then jumped back to his feet, grabbed Annie, and body-slammed her. Her head whip-lashed onto concrete.
The scuffle was broken up by witnesses, and Annie retreated without seeking medical attention. But within a few hours, she complained to commanding officers and fellow Marines of a headache. The next day, she was dead.
Scott remembers being incredulous that the report being shared on the phone was so drastically different from what the family previously had been told.
"I couldn't believe it," he says.
When contacted for this story in early January, NCIS spokesman Ed Buice reiterated the original account of Annie's death. "Eyewitnesses reported the wrestling was mutual, not unusual," he wrote in an e-mail.
A week later, Buice was asked why the female investigator would have offered Scott Dryden a different version of the events that killed his daughter. At that time, Buice stated that the later version — that the soldiers' wrestling was not "mutual," as he had previously said — was correct. Gone was the talk of wanting to try out new grappling maneuvers.
"It was a spur-of-the-moment thing initiated by Dryden, in reaction to a comment made by the sailor," Buice said.
"By all accounts, she jumped the sailor, hit her head during their scuffle but did not seek medical treatment, did not make any allegations against the sailor, nor even tell her mom that she had suffered a head injury." Buice added that the ruling of homicide means only that Dryden died at the hands of another person. "It does not connote any criminal activity."
According to Buice, when a crime is committed on a military base, the base command makes the final call on whether charges will be filed. In Annie Dryden's case, the base's commanding leadership was the Marines. (As of press time, Buice could not produce the identity of the female investigator who had spoken to Scott Dryden.)
Annie's father understands the law. What he doesn't understand is why the sailor wasn't held accountable for slamming a much smaller woman to the ground. He was never given the name of the sailor in question, and the name of the sailor and the eyewitnesses were redacted from the report.
"Shouldn't the sailor at least be charged with manslaughter?" he asks today. "They didn't do nothing to him ... nothing."
It appears now that the Drydens may not have been the only ones influenced by military representatives. Benjamin Duer, the reporter who wrote the July 2009 article in The Repository, says he was told by Thea's side of the family and by the Casualty Assistance Officers that information should not be sought from Scott Dryden because he did not have a close relationship with his daughter.
Scott angrily counters that he spoke to his daughter regularly by phone — as recently as the day before her deadly scuffle.
"This whole thing stinks," he says. "A bunch of hogwash."
In some ways, Annie's death mirrors that of U.S. Army Private Lavena Johnson of St. Louis, whose 2005 death has been the subject of intense media scrutiny.
The Defense Department stated Johnson — a former violin-playing honor student — put the barrel of her M16 in her mouth after reading break-up e-mails from her new boyfriend, who was in Kentucky at the time. As the military attempted to explain to the family how she killed herself, investigators from the Army Criminal Investigation Command flip-flopped on details.
Johnson's parents believe their daughter was raped and murdered, and that the military, desperate to keep rising incidence of sexual violence against female soldiers under wraps, orchestrated a cover-up.
Annual reports from the U.S. Department of Defense bear out the rising problem: Military sexual assaults in war zones rose 26 percent from 2007 to 2008, and another 33 percent over the following year.
Scott Dryden believes his daughter may have been a victim of what has been termed "military sexual trauma," or MST, and the confrontation with the sailor a convenient explanation for her death. He says an advocate for women who suffer from MST reached out to him in the months following Annie's death, explaining the potential significance of the way her body was found.
It's a concern shared by retired U.S. Army Colonel Ann Wright, who quit her State Department job in protest of the 2003 Iraq invasion and now champions the cause of MST victims. She claims that many American female soldiers in war zones fear the portable latrines, which historically are recognized as rape traps.
"Women are supposed to go to the latrines only with a buddy, as so many rapes have occurred near the porta-potties," she says. "That's why many women carry knives in Iraq and Afghanistan for protection."
Predators in a war zone, says Wright, usually follow a rape with intimidation because the victim is already surrounded by violence and confusion. "They'll say, 'You're going to be dead by tomorrow. Raping you is just the cost of war. We'll just chalk it up [your death] to unsafe security.'" She believes this may be what happened to Annie Dryden.
No military or newspaper accounts of Annie's death introduced evidence of sexual assault. Scene's request for an autopsy report on Annie Dryden could not be fulfilled in time for this story.
Scott Dryden's attitude these days isn't entirely one of defiance. He remembers how Annie had originally enlisted for the college tuition, because she didn't want to spend the rest of her life in the middle of nowhere. She chose the Marines because it was the branch that offered her the greatest challenge. Annie's brother, Jacob, is also a Marine, stationed at Camp LeJeune in North Carolina.
Their father understands that soldiers die, and not always from clear-cut circumstances. He would settle now for some measure of closure — something to clarify the baffling answers he says have been fed to him.
But he also knows that countless military parents who lose their children ultimately face the never-ending question that eats at them day and night: What exactly happened to my kid?
Several years before his daughter shipped out to Iraq, Scott Dryden had the words "Fiery Angel" tattooed on his arm. It's how Annie's fellow soldiers came to know her, and how her father back home had known her all along.
"I couldn't have asked for a better child," he says. "She was tops, man."
John Lasker is a freelance writer from Columbus. This story was supported in part by Spot.us, a "crowd funding" initiative to support independent journalists.