Fallen soldier with ‘craziest laugh’ honored by comrades

Staff Sgt. Daniel Ishaak was killed Oct. 3 in the Iraqi city of Hawijah.


By BEN MURRAY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 9, 2006

FORWARD OPERATING BASE McHENRY, Iraq — It was a goofy, infectious laugh, so strange and arresting it almost sounded cartoonish.

It started out small and built to a high-pitched crescendo so uniquely odd that at times people thought he was faking it. But it was unmistakable, soldiers said, and it made others laugh, too.

“It was like a hiss, then it just generated into a full-blown I don’t know what,” said Pfc. Justin Joiner, of Headquarters and Headquarters Company for the 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment

It was the laugh of Staff Sgt. Daniel Isshak, a man known for his humor, grit and compassion among fellow members of the 2-27 Infantry, who remembered him in a memorial ceremony Saturday at this small, remote base southwest of Kirkuk. On Tuesday, Isshak was shot and killed in the city of Hawijah when his convoy suffered a grenade attack and he dismounted to secure the area.

For his actions in combat that day, he was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

As a Muslim of Russian heritage who spoke fluent Arabic, the 25-year-old from Alta Loma, Calif., was a distinctive soldier who was easygoing in his off time, but completely squared away when his uniform was on, soldiers said.

“He was two different guys,” said Sgt. Brad Fineberg, who worked with Isshak.

At work or play, he had a streak of single-minded tenacity that wouldn’t allow him to quit or back down no matter what the situation, soldiers said. Accomplished at grappling, he made it all the way to the 25th Infantry Division finals, where he was beaten only when he was strangled into unconsciousness, remembered Chaplain Charles Popov.

Later, Popov said he asked Isshak why he hadn’t tapped out to end the match once it became hopeless. “His response was simply, ‘I don’t tap out, sir,’” Popov said.

Isshak wasn’t particularly large or strong, but it was that hard edge that made him a good grappler and a good soldier, Joiner said.

“He was mean as hell, is what it was,” he said. Joiner said the only other time he saw Isshak fall out was when the two tried to drink a bottle of tequila together and got through most if it before Isshak just dropped his head to the table and slept.

“I’ve seen him pass out, but I’ve never seen him quit,” Joiner said.

Isshak used that doggedness to get him through Ranger school after eight punishing months, and carried that attitude to the field. He was strict with his men, and went heavy on the physical training, one soldier said.

“He was [in communications], but it seemed like he had more infantry in him,” Joiner said.

When not on duty, however, Isshak was an everyman who liked to play his guitar and enjoyed acoustic music, Fineberg said.

The loss of Isshak was a tough blow for the more than 800 soldiers at FOB McHenry, who have had a violent start to their yearlong deployment here. Since arriving in mid-August, the 2-27 has lost five men to insurgent attacks.

But the danger didn’t demoralize Isshak, who wanted to be in the thick of things, soldiers said. “He loved his soldiers, he loved being out on patrol,” said Staff Sgt. Christopher Hooten. And, of course, “He had the craziest laugh.”

Lt. Col. Jack Pritchard places a memento at the small shrine for Staff Sgt. Daniel Isshak after a memorial service Saturday at Forward Operating Base McHenry, Iraq.