Lawrence Norman Freedman, known as "Gus" to his old Mount Airy friends and "Super Jew" to his Green Beret comrades, died as he had lived: fast, hard and discreetly. Even now, all the Pentagon has to say about him is that the first American to die in Somalia was a "civilian employee of the U.S. government."
His name did not make most newspapers. His death on a covert mission the Pentagon refuses to disclose was obscured by the crush of holidays and President Bush's New Year's Eve visit to Somalia.
"His life was a secret from us," said his father, Leroy Freedman.
Only now, with Freedman buried with honors Dec. 29 at Arlington National Cemetery, are his family and friends discovering the breadth of his secret past and the deep distinction of his service.
At his funeral and memorial service, the great sweep of an uncommon life was reflected in the mourners: Bikers and Green Berets, trained killers and combat veterans, children and generals and spies, people from Panama and Turkey and Vietnam. Freedman had befriended them all.
"Larry was like a prism," said his sister, Sylvia Freedman-Doner of Langhorne, Bucks County. "Everybody saw him in a different light. I'm just now beginning to get the full picture."
Few of Freedman's friends knew that he had survived the Delta Force hostage-rescue mission that went up in flames at Desert One in Iran in 1980, killing eight of his elite fellow "Doorbusters." They did not know he had been one of the first men to train Delta Force, the anti-terrorist unit at Fort Bragg, N.C.
Most knew Freedman had been a Special Forces medic in Vietnam. But few knew that he was an expert sniper who taught other snipers.
They did not know that he had advised the Secret Service on security designs for the presidential limousine, or that he had undertaken secret missions on several continents.
"It turns out I shared my little brother with the world," Freedman-Doner said.
Freedman's friends were not surprised to learn he was in Somalia. During his 25 years with the Green Berets and his two years on "special assignment" since retiring from active duty in 1990, Freedman disappeared for weeks at a time, saying only that he was "out of the country."
Freedman flourished in the military underworld of Delta Force and the Special Forces, where not even wives and children know precisely what their men do. He was one of those soldiers who give over their lives to that amorphous entity called "the government," or, as he preferred, "my country."
They are trained in secrecy, sent away on unspecified missions to unknown points, returning as unexpectedly as they had left. They pass in and out of the secretive JFK Special Warfare Center near Smoke Bomb Hill at Fort Bragg, blending with regular troops at the PX and commissary between missions.
"Honest to God, I don't know where all he went. I don't think anyone knew. But I know Gus was one guy in this world who did exactly what he wanted to do with his life," said Paul Weinberg, a childhood friend from Mount Airy who nicknamed Freedman "Gus" after a resourceful cartoon mouse.
Men like Gus Freedman are indispensable, said Weinberg, an optical-company salesman. They follow orders, no questions asked.
"When things get bad, the country doesn't make it without guys like Gus. They do what's got to be done," Weinberg said.
By now beyond tears, Freedman's family and friends can smile at the memory of an exuberant, impulsive man eager to go anywhere at any time, always most secure when his life was in upheaval. They mourn his death, they said, but are comforted by the knowledge that he would have been proud to die while clearing a path for the U.S. Marines.
"I can't get morose - he'd really be pissed off," his sister said. ''We've all come to the conclusion that, just as he hit the mine, he probably got that twinkle in his eye and that ridiculous grin on his face and said: 'Ohhhhh, s-!' "
At the funeral, his friends say, they learned that Freedman had done covert ''government work" since 1990 in Central America, the Middle East, Bosnia and Africa - "wherever the action was," his sister said. The Pentagon refuses to discuss Freedman's missions, or to say what he was doing when his vehicle hit a tank mine outside the Somali outpost of Bardera.
One news report, quoting military officers, said the unnamed civilian was part of an advance team preparing the way for a Marine thrust planned for two days later. The report speculated that the team was trying to pinpoint armed Somali clans.
"Larry knew that the kind of mission he was on, no attention could be drawn to him," said Larry Walz, a close friend who met Freedman when they trained Special Forces teams in 1977. "He would've understood the need to be discreet. That was his style."
Walz, an Environmental Protection Agency investigator with a government security clearance, declined to say whether Freedman worked for the CIA. But he remarked during an interview about his old friend's work: "You and I both know what we're talking about here."
Leroy Freedman said that the military never notified him that his son was dead and that it telephoned only Larry's estranged wife. He said the Pentagon gave him less than 24 hours' notice of his son's funeral.
When he asked a Pentagon official what his son had been doing in Somalia, Freedman said, "The man went right on to the next sentence. He just ignored the question."
Freedman's family says his wives - he was divorced from his first wife, a Vietnamese, and separated from his second wife - often did not know where he was for weeks at a time. Since his death, his second wife Teresa has received letters from strangers around the world, and phone calls from George Bush and Bill Clinton.
"His country came first with Larry, and with that came the secrecy," Freedman-Doner said. "He was the consummate soldier. When his country called for him, he answered. . . . He'd come in and out of our lives. He'd disappear for weeks, then show up on your doorstep in the middle of the night."
Although he stood just 5-foot-10 and weighed 165 pounds, Freedman was ''built like an oak tabletop," Weinberg said. He jogged daily and lifted weights. He rode a Harley-Davidson motorcycle to work, biked around the country every summer, wore leather motorcycle jackets. He liked to collect snakes and whips, his friends said.
As a teenager, Freedman-Doner said, Larry was a "troublemaker-slash- hoodlum-slash-juvenile delinquent" who terrorized his teachers. Weinberg remembers Freedman diving into gang fights with kids from Oxford Circle, ''getting into all kinds of trouble, short of killing somebody."
Years later, after Freedman's Special Forces friends nicknamed him "Super Jew," his sister sewed him a red cape with the Hebrew letter for S. At the funeral, Weinberg said, the military rabbi told the gathering that Freedman was not often called "Larry" or even "Sgt. Freedman."
"It was always: 'Super Jew is back in camp,' " the rabbi said, according to Weinberg.
More than once, Freedman-Doner said, Freedman would ride his motorcycle up
from Fort Bragg to her Bucks County home and insist that they go out for a cheesesteak. Then he would hop on his Harley "hog" and speed back to North Carolina.
Once, Weinberg said, Freedman showed up at his Bucks County home, unannounced and packing a gun.
"My wife said: 'Geez, he's really a scary guy.' And I said: 'Naw, that's just Larry.' He was such a kind guy, a gentle guy," Weinberg said.
"Some people might call him crazy," said Joe Murray, a retired sergeant in Fayetteville, N.C., and a longtime Special Forces compatriot. "But it was a calculated craziness."
Freedman's friends say he had one rule for them regarding his work: Don't ask. He never told them what he did to earn two Bronze Stars in Vietnam. They learned only after his death that he had been awarded more than 20 medals, including a Purple Heart for shrapnel wounds suffered in 1968.
"He wasn't the kind of soldier who sat around telling war stories," Murray said.
At the funeral, Freedman-Doner said, friends told her of a promise Freedman had made to a little American girl he had met in Turkey:
Freedman had seen the girl crying because her family was moving to the United States from Turkey, the only home she knew. Freedman tore a dollar bill and gave half to the girl, telling her he would find her in five years to give her the other half. He promised she would be living happily in America by then.
Five years later, Freedman-Doner was told, her brother tracked the girl down and handed her the torn bill.
More tales emerged from a Dec. 30 memorial service at Fort Bragg. There, Fayetteville Observer-Times reporter Kim Oriole recalled, men in biker regalia and Special Forces Association jackets stood stoically, trying not to weep as they reflected on Freedman's turbulent life.
"Some of them looked like they could rip your throat out," Oriole said. ''They're the kind of guys who you're afraid to look into their eyes,
because you know there'd be nothing there."
Oriole quoted Brig. Gen. Richard Potter Jr., deputy commander of the Army Special Operations Command, as saying of his old colleague:
"The record will not reflect the many operations he participated in . . . in isolated places, far from familiar voices. He was a soldier through and through. God, he was a talented man."
Freedman's friends decided to honor his memory by asking that donations in his name be made to the JFK Special Warfare Museum at Fort Bragg.
At the Pentagon last week, a colonel in the public affairs office was asked how long Freedman had been in Somalia.
"He was an employee of the U.S. government," he replied.
Was he working for the CIA?
"He was an employee of the U.S. government," the colonel repeated.
Was he doing advance security work for the President's visit?
"Whatever he was doing," the colonel said finally, "he's not doing it anymore, unfortunately for all of us."
Freedman always lived for the next phone call sending him overseas, Walz said. On motorcycling vacations they took, he said, Freedman would constantly check TV and radio news reports and then announce:
"Well, there's no war on right now. We can go on with our vacation."
When Freedman failed to show up for a planned winter vacation in Colorado during the Iran hostage crisis, Walz said, he left a telephone message: "I'm not playing in the snow anymore. I'm playing in the sand."
Weinberg said he is certain his childhood friend is at peace now; he died the soldier's death he always preferred. Gus passed with only one regret, he said.
"You know, the guy was really pissed off that he didn't get to go to Operation Desert Storm," Weinberg said. "He told me: I could go for one more good war."